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Mad vaman 



in 



The Woman Writer 



and the 

Nine lee nth- Century 







H 



EDITION 



The Madwoa* /riter and 

the Nine ation 



"The authors have an encyclopedic command of literature and a particularly 
generous respect for their colleagues (and some 'precursors') in feminist crit- 
icism. Their summa is deeply scholarly, but it is also elegant and vigorous. I 
came to it expecting to be stunned by learning; I read it in a state of sus- 
tained excitement because it offered a new way of seeing." 

— Frances Taliaferro, Harper's 

"It's unlikely that anyone reading this massive, brilliandy argued and radically 
reinterpretive study of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, 
George Eliot and Emily Dickinson (among others) will ever see these writers 
quite as they did before." — Publishers Weekly 

"Thanks to Gilbert and Gubar, we return to the writing of these nineteenth- 
century women with renewed curiosity, with intimations of a discernible 
female imagination." — Valerie Miner, Christian Science Monitor 

"Having (the book) at hand is like having a good friend nearby. She is enor- 
mously well read, sharp, visionary in what she sees when she reads a book. 
You love to talk with her. You thank her for what she shows you; you always 
come back to her; count on her insights; and you like her enormously? 
— Louise Bernikow, Ms. 

"[Gilbert and Gubar] have an important subject to explore. They are equipped 
. . . with a scholarly knowledge of the period, including its obscure corners — 
Frankenstein, Aurora Leigh, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen's juvenilia — and 

they ingeniously bring in myth and fairy tale to support their arguments 

Indeed they do open up a new dimension in these works, and one will always 
see them differently" — Rosemary Dinnage, New York Review of Books 



The Madwoman in the Attic 



The Madwoman in the 
Attic 



THE WOMAN WRITER AND THE 
NINETEENTH-CENTURY 
LITERARY IMAGINATION 

SECOND EDITION 

SANDRA M. GILBERT 
and SUSAN GUBAR 



YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS 
NEW HAVEN AND LONDON 



Copyright © 1979 by Yale University. •^-^.j^.^ 

Copyright © 1984 by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. : 4-'--'*-™-UJ«™ L" J 

Introduction to Second Edition copyright © 2000 by Sandra M. Gilbert ancTSiSS5iii°eifl«K« 

All rights reserved. 

This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, in any form (beyond that copying 

permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for 

the public press) , without written permission from the publishers. 

For information about this and other Yale University Press publications, please contact: 
U. S. office sales.press@yale.edu 

Europe office sales@yaleup.co.uk 

Printed in the United States of America. 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 
Gilbert, Sandra M. 

The madwoman in the attic : the woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary 

imagination / Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. — 2nd. ed. 
p. cm. 

Includes bibliographical references and index. 

ISBN 978-0-300-08458-0 

1. English literature — Women authors — History and criticism. 2. English literature — 

19th century — History and criticism. 3. Women in literature. 4. Women authors — 

Psychology. 5. English literature — Psychological aspects. I. Gubar, Susan, 1944- II. Title. 

PR115.G5 2000 

820.9'9287'090S4— dc21 99-086038 

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. 

Acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint portions of this book, 
originally published in slightly different form: Feminist Studio, for The Genesis of 
Hunger, according to Shirley" (by Susan Gubar) and "Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's 
Monstrous Eve" (by Sandra Gilbert). / Navel, for "Sane Jane and the Critics" (by Susan 
Gubar) and "A Revisionary Company" (by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar). / PMIA, for 
"Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton's Bogey" (by Sandra 
Gilbert). / Signs, for "Plain Jane's Progress* (by Sandra Gilbert) and The Female 
Monster in Augustan Satire" (by Susan Gubar). / The Cornell Review, for portions of "Liber 
Scriptus: The Metaphor of Literary Paternity" (by Sandra Gilbert) . / Indiana University 
Press, for portions of "Introduction: Gender, Creativity, and the Woman Poet" (by Sandra 
Gilbert and Susan Gubar) , in Gilbert and Gubar, ed., Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on 
Women Poets (Indiana University Press, 1979) . 

Acknowledgment is made for permission to quote from the following: Thomas H. 
Johnson, ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of 
Harvard University Press. Copyright 1951, 1955 by the President and Fellows of Harvard 
College. By permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College. / Thomas 
H.Johnson, ed. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and 
Company. Copyright 1914, 1935, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright 1929, 
© 1957, 1963 by Mary L. Hampson. By permission of the publishers. / Ruth Stone. Cheap. 
Copyright © 1975 by Ruth Stone. By permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 

10 9 8 7 



This book is as much for Edward, Elliot, and Roger, as it is 
for Kathy, Molly, Sandra, Simone, Susan, and Susanna. 



The strife of thought, accusing and excusing, began afresh, and gathered 
fierceness. The soul of Lilith lay naked to the torture of pure interpenetrating 
inward light. She began to moan, and sigh deep sighs, then murmur as if 
holding colloquy with a dividual self: her queendom was no longer whole; 
it was divided against itself. ... At length she began what seemed a tale 
about herself, in a language so strange, and in forms so shadowy, that I 
could but here and there understand a little. 

— George MacDonald, Lilith 

It was not at first clear to me exactly what I was, except that I was someone 
who was being made to do certain things by someone else who was really 
the same person as myself — I have always called her Lilith. And yet the 
acts were mine, not Lilith 's. 

—Laura Riding, "Eve's Side of It" 



Contents 



Preface to the First Edition xi 

Introduction to the Second Edition: The Madwoman in the 

Academy xv 

Part I. Toward a Feminist Poetics 

1 . The Queen's Looking Glass: Female Creativity, Male 
Images of Women, and the Metaphor of Literary Paternity 3 

2. Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the 
Anxiety of Authorship 45 

3. The Parables of the Cave 93 

Part II. Inside the House of Fiction: Jane Austen's 
Tenants of Possibility 

4. Shut Up in Prose: Gender and Genre in Austen's 
Juvenilia 107 

5. Jane Austen's Cover Story (and Its Secret Agents) 146 

Part III. How Are We Fal'n?: Milton's Daughters 

6. Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers 187 

7. Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 213 

8. Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 248 

Part IV. The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

9. A Secret, Inward Wound: The Professors Pupil 311 

10. A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane's Progress 336 

11. The Genesis of Hunger, According to Shirley 372 

12. The Buried Life of Lucy Snowe 399 



IX 



* Contents 

PartV. Captivity and Consciousness in 
George Eliot's Fiction 

13. Made Keen by Loss: George Eliot's Veiled Vision 443 

14. George Eliot as the Angel of Destruction 478 

Part VI. Strength in Agony: Nineteenth-Century 
Poetry by Women 

15. The Aesthetics of Renunciation 539 

16. A Woman — White: Emily Dickinson's Yarn of Pearl 581 

Notes 651 

Index 699 



Preface to the First Edition 



This book began with a course in literature by women that we taught 
together at Indiana University in the fall of 1 974. Reading the writing 
of women from Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte to Emily Dickinson, 
Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath, we were surprised by the coherence 
of theme and imagery that we encountered in the works of writers 
who were often geographically, historically, and psychologically 
distant from each other. Indeed, even when we studied women's 
achievements in radically different genres, we found what began to 
seem a distinctively female literary tradition, a tradition that had 
been approached and appreciated by many women readers and 
writers but which no one had yet defined in its entirety. Images of 
enclosure and escape, fantasies in which maddened doubles func- 
tioned as asocial surrogates for docile selves, metaphors of physical 
discomfort manifested in frozen landscapes and fiery interiors — such 
patterns recurred throughout this tradition, along with obsessive 
depictions of diseases like anorexia, agoraphobia, and claustrophobia. 
Seeking to understand the anxieties out of which this tradition 
must have grown, we undertook a close study of the literature 
produced by women in the nineteenth century, for that seemed to 
us to be the first era in which female authorship was no longer in 
some sense anomalous. As we explored this literature, however, we 
found ourselves over and over again confronting two separate but 
related matters : first, the social position in which nineteenth-century 
women writers found themselves and, second, the reading that they 
themselves did. Both in life and in art, we saw, the artists we studied 
were literally and figuratively confined. Enclosed in the architecture 
of an overwhelmingly male-dominated society, these literary women 
were also, inevitably, trapped in the specifically literary constructs 
of what Gertrude Stein was to call "patriarchal poetry." For not only 
did a nineteenth-century woman writer have to inhabit ancestral 
mansions (or cottages) owned and built by men, she was also con- 
stricted and restricted by the Palaces of Art and Houses of Fiction 
male writers authored. We decided, therefore, that the striking 



xii Preface 

coherence we noticed in literature by women could be explained by a 
common, female impulse to struggle free from social and literary 
confinement through strategic redefinitions of self, art, and society. 

As our title's allusion to Jane Eyre suggests, we began our own 
definition of these redefinitions with close readings of Charlotte 
Bronte, who seemed to us to provide a paradigm of many distinctively 
female anxieties and abilities. Thus, although we have attempted 
to maintain a very roughly chronological ordering of authors through- 
out the book, this often under-appreciated nineteenth-century novelist 
really does occupy a central position in our study: through detailed 
analyses of her novels, we hope to show new ways in which all 
nineteenth-century works by women can be interpreted. As our table 
of contents indicates, however, we eventually felt that we had to 
branch out from Bronte, if only to understand her more fully. For 
in the process of researching our book we realized that, like many 
other feminists, we were trying to recover not only a major (and 
neglected) female literature but a whole (neglected) female history. 

In this connection, the work of social historians like Gerda Lerner, 
Alice Rossi, Ann Douglas, and Martha Vicinus not only helped us 
but helped remind us just how much of women's history has been 
lost or misunderstood. Even more useful for our project, however, 
were the recent demonstrations by Ellen Moers and Elaine Showalter 
that nineteenth-century literary women did have both a literature 
and a culture of their own — that, in other words, by the nineteenth 
century there was a rich and clearly defined female literary sub- 
culture, a community in which women consciously read and related 
to each other's works. Because both Moers and Showalter have so 
skillfully traced the overall history of this community, we have been 
able here to focus closely on a number of nineteenth-century texts 
we consider crucial to that history; and in a future volume we plan 
similar readings of key twentieth-century texts. For us, such touch- 
stones have provided models for understanding the dynamics of 
female literary response to male literary assertion and coercion. 

That literary texts are coercive (or at least compellingly persuasive) 
has been one of our major observations, for just as women have been 
repeatedly defined by male authors, they seem in reaction to have 
found it necessary to act out male metaphors in their own texts, as 
if trying to understand their implications. Our literary methodology 



Preface xiii 

has therefore been based on the Bloomian premise that literary history 
consists of strong action and inevitable reaction. Moreover, like such 
phenomenological critics as Gaston Bachelard, Simone de Beauvoir, 
and J. Hillis Miller, we have sought to describe both the experience 
that generates metaphor and the metaphor that creates experience. 

Reading metaphors in this experiential way, we have inevitably 
ended up reading our own lives as well as the texts we study, so that 
the process of writing this book has been as transformative for us 
as the process of "attempting the pen" was for so many of the women 
we discuss. And much of the exhilaration of writing has come from 
working together. Like most collaborators, we have divided our 
responsibilities: Sandra Gilbert drafted the section on "Milton's 
daughters," the essays on The Professor and Jane Eyre, and the chapters 
on the "Aesthetics of Renunciation" and on Emily Dickinson; Susan 
Gubar drafted the section on Jane Austen, the essays on Shirley and 
Villette, and the two chapters about George Eliot; and each of us has 
drafted portions of the introductory exploration of a feminist poetics. 
We have continually exchanged and discussed our drafts, however, 
so that we feel our book represents not just a dialogue but a consensus. 
Redefining what has so far been male-defined literary history in the 
same way that women writers have revised "patriarchal poetics," 
we have found that the process of collaboration has given us the 
essential support we needed to complete such an ambitious project. 

Besides our own friendship, however, we were fortunate enough 
to have much additional help from colleagues, friends, students, 
husbands, and children. Useful suggestions were offered by many, 
including Frederic Amory, Wendy Barker, Elyse Blankley, Timothy 
Bovy, Moneera Doss, Robert Griffin, Dolores Gros Louis, Anne 
Hedin, Robert Hopkins, Kenneth Johnston, Cynthia Kinnard, U. C. 
Knoepflmacher, Wendy Kolmar, Richard Levin, Barbara Clarke 
Mossberg, Celeste Wright, and, especially, Donald Gray, whose 
detailed comments were often crucial. We are grateful to many 
others as well. The encouragement of Harold Bloom, Tillie Olsen, 
Robert Scholes, Catharine Stimpson, and Ruth Stone aided us in 
significant ways, and we are particularly grateful to Kenneth R. R. 
Gros Louis, whose interest in this project has enabled us to teach 
together several times at Indiana and whose good will has continually 
heartened us. In this connection, we want especially to thank our 



xiv Preface 

home institutions, Indiana University and the University of California 
at Davis, which also encouraged us by generously providing travel 
money, research grants, and summer fellowships when no other 
funding agencies would. 

We must thank, too, the people connected with Yale University 
Press who helped make this book possible. In particular, Garrett 
Stewart, chosen as outside advisor by the Press, was an ideal reader, 
whose enthusiasm and perceptiveness were important to our work; 
Ellen Graham was a perfect editor, whose exemplary patience helped 
guide this project to completion; and Lynn Walterick was a superb 
and sympathetic copyeditor, whose skillful questions invariably 
helped us find better answers. Without Edith Lavis's dedication in 
preparing the manuscript, however, their efforts would have been 
in vain, so we must thank her as well, while we must also thank Mrs. 
Virginia French for devoted childcare without which even the act 
of composition would have been impossible, Tricia Lootens and 
Roger Gilbert for help in indexing, and both Eileen Frye and Alison 
Hilton for useful suggestions. As this book goes to press we want 
to note, too, that Hopewell Selby occupies a special place in our 
thoughts. Finally, we want most of all to acknowledge what has 
been profoundly important to both of us: the revisionary advice 
and consent of our husbands, Elliot Gilbert and Edward Gubar, 
and our children, Roger, Kathy, and Susanna Gilbert, and Molly 
and Simone Gubar, all of whom, together, have given us lives that 
are a joy to read. 



Introduction to the Second Edition: 
The Madwoman in the Academy 

A Note to the Reader 

SMG: In the introduction to this millennial edition of The Mad- 
woman in the Attic, Susan Gubar and I have departed from our usual 
attempt at the creation of a seamlessly "unitary" text. Instead of 
writing a collaborative essay, we've engaged in a dialogue that 
deliberately — both literally and figuratively — dramatizes the dif- 
ferences between our two voices, demonstrating what readers 
have no doubt always understood: that behind the hyphenated 
yet superficially monolithic authorial entity known as Gilbert-and- 
Gubar there are and always have been two distinct, if deeply 
bonded, human beings, each with her own view of the world and, 
more particularly, of women (mad or sane), of attics and parlors, 
of language, and of the arts of language. 

Our current conversation covers a range of topics that we out- 
lined together, but throughout, as we review our early years of 
feminist education and collaboration (in "Scenes of Instruc- 
tion"), analyze the reasons for our initial focus on a particular lit- 
erary period (The Nineteenth Century and After") , consider the 
scholarship that has followed our own ("Beyond The Mad- 
woman"), and reflect on the problems and possibilities posed by 
the urgent now of the new millennium ("The Present Moment"), 
each of us has spoken for herself. 

SCENES OF INSTRUCTION 

SDG: Although the elevator was going up, we were both feeling 
down when we noticed each other arriving for work at Ballantine 
Hall early that first fall semester of 1973. We had each just moved 
to Bloomington, Indiana, but was it Sandra or was it Susan who 
asked, "Do you ever get telephone calls at home that are NOT 

xv 



xvi Introduction 

long distance?" Exchanging promises to phone each other, we 
admitted how uprooted, how lonely we felt in this midwestern 
university town. 

Our discomfort had something to do with what seemed like an 
overwhelmingly Protestant and masculine ethos of productivity, 
or so it seemed to us. "Have you had a productive weekend?": the 
question intoned by processions of solemn colleagues hung heavy 
in the hall on Monday mornings. Sandra was the one who came 
up with the "Sassafras Tea Theory" that so bonded us, though our 
common origins as ex-New Yorkers and Euro-ethnics didn't hurt 
our evolving friendship. 

'They've drunk it," she nodded, to my initial mystification. 
"The Sassafras Tea. It's .what has infused them with gravitas." 
Giddy with the hilarity upon which our future friendship would 
be based, we probably sounded like a couple of madwomen cack- 
ling in front of the English department office. Our colleagues 
(overwhelmingly male) looked obligingly askance at our stub- 
born refusal to imbibe the professional draft that would have 
turned us into replicants. Even if it was only a fiction, we liked to 
think that our refusal to swallow the sassafras tea made us thirsty 
for the headier elixirs that flowed so plentifully when we eventu- 
ally got our two families together for a grand Thanksgiving feast 
or a weekday picnic supper. 

smg: My anxiety about sassafras tea was real and serious! For my 
decision to come to Indiana had at that time felt quite radical. A 
born-and-bred New Yorker, married to somebody several steps 
ahead of me in his academic career, I'd had three children by the 
time I was twenty-seven, and although I was still working on my 
Columbia dissertation, the four of us had dutifully followed our 
head of household to California, when he accepted a job at the 
University of California, Davis. Elliot and I were emphatically 
bicoastal people. What were we and our three junior Berkeley 
hippies doing now, in the fall of 1973, in the heart of the heart of 
the country? Our map of America basically recapped the geog- 
raphy of the famous Steinberg cartoon: Manhattan at the center 
of things, California a glamorous possibility on the other side of a 
huge chasm known as the U.SA., with a few mysterious squiggles 



introduction xvii 

in the intervening blankness. How had we ended up in Indiana, 
of all places? 

? We were an academic couple, that was why, and an academic 
couple at a time when such pairs were punished rather than 
rewarded for daring to have common-interests, or perhaps, more 
precisely, when wives had to pay a steep price for wanting to work 
in the same fields dominated by husbands. Throughout graduate 
school I'd been paving that price — a cost that would eventually 
become, in the now quaint terminology of the 1970s, "conscious- 
ness raising" but that I hadn't yet altogether grasped, even when I 
arrived in Bloomington. 

Remember the old feminist device of the mental "dick" that 
you experience when you find yourself confronting what used to 
be called sexism? By the time I ran into Susan in the elevator, I'd 
encountered a tap-dance worth of potential clicks, without paying 
much attention to them. Click: what was I doing in graduate 
school anyway? demanded one of my professors at Columbia 
when he found out that my husband was teaching in Columbia 
College while I was enrolled in the graduate program. Click: 
there was absolutely no chance of my getting a job at Davis 
because nepotism rules were inviolable, explained one of my hus- 
band's colleagues as soon as we arrived on campus. Click: and 
that was only right, chimed in another, because it wouldn't be fair 
if there were "two salaries in one family." Click: I gave up and 
began teaching as a lecturer in the California State system, where 
a number of other University of California wives had similar jobs, 
with teaching loads twice their husbands', prefiguring the kind of 
work all too many people of both sexes do on all too many cam- 
puses today. 

By the time I met Susan, click after click, most of them 
unheard by me, had ratcheted my particular wheel of fortune 
into a whole new position: in 1972, I'd applied for jobs all over the 
country, forgetting for the first time that I was just the lesser half 
of an academic couple, and to my delight I'd had a few offers, 
though none were in California, and the best of them was in, of 
all places, Indiana, a state so shocking to my bicoastal system that 
when I finally got there I began to have bad dreams about a 
deeply alien beverage. 



xviii Introduction 

Why sassafras tea? Well, settled for the first year in a large, 
scary, rather Gothic house we'd sublet in Bloomington, my family 
and I decided that as long as we were here we should drive 
around, look at cornfields, small towns, pastures, things people 
don't get to see in Queens or the Bronx. Nashville, Indiana, for 
instance. A charming litde town, featuring grits and home-cured 
hams for breakfast, log cabins, and even a few illegal stills, along 
with soda fountains where people actually (and quite legally!) 
drank sassafras tea. 

I ate die grits and ham with enthusiasm, failed to locate any 
manufacturers of moonshine, and refused, I hardly knew why, to 
drink the sassafras tea. Until not long after seeing The Invasion of 
the Body Snatchers, I found out why: I had the dream to which 
Susan refers, in which I discovered I'd joined a department full of 
Pod People (many of whom looked deceptively like pipe-smoking 
male professors in tweed jackets) , all solemnly advising me to 
"Drink the Sassafras Tea" — an act that I knew, with the certainty 
bestowed by REM sleep, would turn me into either a Pod Person 
or a midwesterner. 

As I hope this rather convoluted tale makes clear, the fatalities 
that had conspired to shape my nightmares were not unrelated to 
the forces that would become the focus of collaborative attention 
for me and Susan not too long after we met in the elevator. 

sdg: We had decided to team-teach an accelerated senior sem- 
inar, in part so Sandra could commute more easily to California, 
since her family had returned to their Berkeley house in the fall 
of 1974. Although I was trained in the eighteenth-century novel 
and Sandra in twentieth-century poetry, we had found our most 
animated conversations circling around texts by women that nei- 
ther one of us had studied in graduate school but that both of us 
had loved either as young adult or as more recent readers: fiction 
by Jane Austen, the Brontes, Louisa May Alcott, Virginia Woolf; 
verse all over the map, from Christina Rossetti to Sylvia Plath. So 
what should we call our undergraduate course? "Upstairs Down- 
stairs," suggested Sandra, influenced by a popular television show 
playing at the time and the uncanonized status of most of our 
authors. "Vulgar," I vetoed, in my broadest Brooklyn accent She 



Introduction xix 

tried again: The Madwoman in the Attic," this time inspired by 
her discussions of Jane Eyre with her second-grade daughter, 
Susanna. Not a visionary by a longshot, I prevaricated: "Let's try it 
out on a Victorianist." So we turned to Don Gray, seated at a 
neighboring table in the Union cafeteria, who prompdy deliv- 
ered what turned out to be the first of his many affirmations of 
support 

For me, the most memorable event in that remarkably stimu- 
lating class was a highly paradoxical moment. Denise Levertov, 
invited to the Bloomington campus for a reading, had graciously 
accepted a request to meet our undergraduates, with whom we 
had previously studied many of her poems. The chairs had been 
arranged in a circle and the visiting dignitary placed before the 
desk at the front of the room, when in busded a latecomer (was 
her name Dorothy?) with a soft sculpture she had created, tided 
"In Mind," after Levertov's poem. A prooftext for us because it so 
succincuy expressed the split between a modesdy compliant femi- 
ninity and the energies of a rebelliously wild imagination, "In 
Mind" — now transfigured into its colorful fabric version — sat as a 
sort of offering at the feet of Levertov. "That's not what I meant, 
not what I meant at all," she sniffed rather contemptuously, much 
to our astonished discomfort. "I've never considered myself a 
woman artist," she admonished her interlocutors, as (bewildered 
by her hostile reaction) we gazed meaningfully at our students. 
"Trust the tale, not the teller," we chanted at subsequent meet- 
ings of the class, praising the tactile sister arts and using the 
episode to instruct not only our undergraduates but ourselves as 
well in the vagaries of self-definition within the gender politics of 
a decidedly masculinist literary marketplace. 

SMG: Once the scales fell from our eyes on the road to the attic, 
everything glowed with significance: all the parts of our lives 
began to rearrange themselves, as in some dazzling kaleidoscope, 
so that each radiated new and luminous meanings. We'd under- 
taken to team-teach in the first place not just to make my com- 
muting easier (for arduous commuting was what my problematic 
coupledness now entailed) but also in response to our enlight- 
ened chair's call for a course in that hitherto unheard-of subject, 



xx Introduction 

literature by women. I think we put the syllabus together the 
same way we negotiated the course title that Susan just discussed: 
brainstorming in a cafeteria or a pizza parlor. Basically, we listed 
most of the women's texts we knew (and they were of course what 
some critic of The Madwoman was later to call the "old 
chestnuts" — or, to switch metaphors, the "Bronte mountains," 
the "Dickinson hills," and the like — a geography of prominence), 
tried to put them in some sort of order, and then read them with 
each other and with our students. 

By the time Denise Levertov innocendy arrived in Bloom- 
ington for a poetry reading, unconscious of the fevered scenes of 
instruction upon which she was entering, we were in a mutual 
state of what can only be described as revisionary transport, the 
same condition in which so many of the early second-wave femi- 
nists of the now too easily dismissed seventies found themselves. 
The personal was the political, the literary was the personal, the 
sexual was the textual, the feminist was the redemptive, and on 
and on! I don't mean, incidentally, to be sardonic about these 
revelations (for revelations they were) . At the risk of attributing 
improperly logocerttric authority to what some theorists might 
call a "moment of origin," I have to affirm: bliss was it to be alive 
in that time, at that place! And I hope that some of the bliss was 
portioned out, like a delicious dessert, to that first group of stu- 
dents who took the journey of conversion with us. Certainly the 
eye contact Susan mentions was electrically exciting, an epi- 
phanic network of understanding that passed among those of us 
who wanted to communicate agreement that "maybe Levertov 
didn't herself understand what she had in mind," in all her mind, 
when she drafted "In Mind." Never trust the teller, trust the femi- 
nist analysis — at least for now. 

And how transformative that analysis became for us! It was as if 
the clicks I was just describing had become thunderclaps. Some- 
times Susan and I couldn't stop talking after class or office hours, 
so we'd stop by a supermarket to pick up some stuff to bring to 
her house, where I'd become a kind of honorary family member. 
Other nights we'd be on the phone trading insights into the 
meanings made by women's texts — Frankenstein and Wuthering 
Heights, Jane Eyre and the poems of Emily Dickinson, Mrs. Dal- 



Introduction xxi 

loway and Ariel — when they were read not separately and not in 
the usual graduate-school context of, say, the "Victorian novel" or 
"nineteenth-century American lit." but together, in the newly 
denned context of a female literary tradition. 

That there emphatically was such a tradition became clearer 
every day. But the dynamics of its formation had still to be 
traced — and we knew we wanted to be among those who would 
do that, knew we wanted to write a book exploring what Emily 
Dickinson called the 'Tomes of solid Witchcraft" through which 
literary women had spoken to one another over and across cen- 
turies dominated (as Gertrude Stein put it) by "patriarchal 
poetry." For as we now began to see (and as early feminist critics 
were beginning to say), women of letters from Anne Bradstreet to 
Anne Bronte and on through Gertrude Stein to Sylvia Plath had 
engaged in a complex, sometimes conspiratorial, sometimes con- 
vivial conversation that crossed national as well as temporal 
boundaries. And that conversation had been far more energetic, 
indeed far more rebellious, than we'd ever realized. Take Emily 
Dickinson, for instance: as we read, really read, her poems we now 
understood that she was nothing like the "prim little home- 
keeping person" described (in those words) by John Crowe 
Ransom and taught in such terms to most high school and col- 
lege students. On the contrary, hers was "a Soul at the White Heat, " 
her 'Tomes of solid Witchcraft" produced by an imagination that 
had, as she herself admitted, the Vesuvian ferocity of a loaded 
gun. 

sdg: Falling in love with Emily Dickinson had everything to do 
with the power of Sandra's words and the tension, then the tin- 
gling when the milk comes. The scene, oddly enough, was a con- 
ference entitled "Language and Style" at the Graduate Center of 
the City University of New York on April 17, 1977. I had arrived 
the day before to present the first paper of several that I would 
compose on H. D.'s long poem Trilogy, at an early morning ses- 
sion that included more people seated at the front of the room 
(speakers on the program) than in the (happily) small classroom. 
But the timing was excellent for me since it meant I could take 
the subway back to my mother's Upper West Side apartment in 



xxii Introduction 

time to nurse my second daughter (then three months old). The 
logistics would be more complex at an afternoon panel on the 
seventeenth, because I was standing in for Sandra and presenting 
one of her first drafts of the last chapter of The Madwoman in the 
Attic She had by this time relocated in California and was giving a 
poetry reading in Berkeley that same day before flying to New 
York so that we could work on the introductory chapters of our 
book. 

But the crisis occurred way before the rush-hour delays that 
had led me to leave a supplementary botde with my mother. 
Maybe because of the more humane hour, maybe because of the 
fame of Dickinson or (for that matter) the reputation of Sandra, 
whose recendy published Acts of Attention had focused critical 
attention on D. H. Lawrence's poetry, many people showed up at 
her session, including Annette Kolodny who (as if clued into my 
personal situation) informed me that she had been my babysitter 
years ago in Brooklyn. It hardly surprised me that I began to 
quake and shake at the podium as Sandra's words on Dickinson 
spilled from my lips. What words they were, though. They 
stopped me and everyone in the room in our various mental 
tracks, because in some eerie way Sandra's prose made the verse 
vibrate, brought Dickinson dancing like a bomb abroad into the 
CUNY lecture hall. Later, when I heard Sandra read from her 
book of poems Emily's Bread, I understood it was a poet's address 
to her precursor that I had been allowed to mime. At the time, all 
I knew was the tension, then the tingling as milk soaked the front 
of the only dress I possessed that would cover my then (and, alas, 
only then) ample breasts. 

smg: Mothering, motherhood, and mothers: as I look back on the 
years when we were researching and writing The Madwoman, I 
realize that maternity was always somehow central to our project. 
Resisting "patriarchal poetry" and poetics, we struggled, like all 
feminist critics of our generation, to find alternative tropes for 
creativity. If a pen wasn't even metaphorically speaking a penis 
(and a penis certainly wasn't a pen!) , then what was a womb, and 
whose aesthetic was nurtured by its Wordsworthian 'Vise passive- 
ness" or for that matter by its seething and bloody energies? Of 



Introduction xxiii 

course, as soon as we started trying to figure out new ways of 
figuring creativity, we were accused of essentialism. When I sent a 
copy of our revisionary meditation on Plato's cave to an old 
friend who'd become a prominent activist, she responded in 
those precomputer days with ten single-spaced typewritten pages 
of vituperation. (Today her tirade might crash my email pro- 
gram!) 

But as Susan reveals, we were literally mothering and being 
mothered too. In the fall of 1974, when I was living alone in 
Bloomington, I clamped a letter from my younger daughter, 
Susanna, to the door of the fridge in my tiny rental apartment It 
was she who, as a second-grade novel reader, had inspired me to 
reread Jane Eyre so I could chat with her about it at bedtime. Now, 
because she guessed I was often homesick and knew for sure how 
much I missed her and her brother and sister, she'd sent me a 
consoling note, reminding me of the pleasures of friendship 
among women. "Remember the wonderful tea in Jane Eyre. 1 " she 
said — as if to prove that instead of imbibing the dread sassafras 
tea, Susan and I had chosen to partake of the kindlier potion that 
Miss Temple offers Jane and Helen along with those magical 
slices of seed cake. 

Mothered from time to time by my daughters (for my daughter 
Kathy, then an eleven-year-old feminist, also nurtured her 
mother-the-feminist), I was also supportively mothered by my 
feminist mother, as Susan was by hers. Both mothers lived in New 
York, and we almost always saw them when we were in town. 
Indeed, we rather solemnly referred to them as The Mothers" — 
as if they shared some kind of magic with the deific presences 
who have so much power in Goethe's Faust — and we happily 
introduced them to each other. (They're still friends.) Although 
their ethnic backgrounds are very different, they are both immi- 
grants in this country; both, indeed, had fled the pains of Europe 
for the possibilities of a new world. 

Like so many immigrants, of course, they guarded secrets 
whose significance Susan and I often sought to decode. In 
reading the palimpsestic subtexts of women's texts, we once won- 
dered, were we in some sense striving to decipher the submerged 
plots of our mothers' lives? Or were we reimagining ourselves as 



xxw Introduction 

immigrants or anyway explorers — geographers trying to map the 
newly risen Atlantis of women's literature, the Herland of the 
female imagination? To be sure, such exalted speculations didn't 
occupy all that much of our time, especially once we were con- 
fronted with the starding ink-and-paper reality of a book whose 
completed typescript filled not one but two weighty typewriter- 
paper boxes and needed endless footnotes, a nightmarishly com- 
plicated index, jacket copy, and even jacket photographs! 

sdg: "Howdy Doody Meets the Bride of Frankenstein": we roared 
with laughter, tears streaming down our cheeks, whenever we 
managed to negotiate the always eccentric circumstances that 
issued in photographs for book jackets or publicity that made 
Sandra look like Uncle Bob's puppet sidekick, me like the mon- 
ster's mate. (Aneta Sperber's picture for the first edition of The 
Madwoman turned out to be the exception to this rule.) Once, 
while collaborating on the northern California coast, we made 
our circuitous way to a tumbled-down cabin in a remote setting 
where we were expecting to be shot dead but were surprised to be 
shot as the tiny wooden doll of the litde screen, the tottering tow- 
ering hulk of the big screen. Although we are not really that dis- 
tinct in stature, subsequent sittings taught us that some trick in 
lighting or perspective invariably would turn Sandra into a grin- 
ning wired miniature, me into a mammoth mutant. Later, while 
brainstorming in Bloomington, we entered what looked like the 
Bates Motel from Psycho to be photographed through antique 
cameras that confirmed the view of another (in this case profes- 
sional) photographer who had been sent by Ms. magazine, when, 
to celebrate the publication of the Norton Anthology of Literature by 
Women, the editors chose us as "Women of the Year": "You two are 
difficult to take together," he grumbled. A number of our friends, 
colleagues, and editors would have agreed with him. 

SMG: If it was more than a litde bizarre to see ourselves trans- 
formed into Howdy Doody and the Bride of Frankenstein by por- 
trait photographers, it was (and sometimes still is) equally odd to 
encounter critiques of The Madwoman that faulted us, years later, 
for intellectual crimes whose lineaments most of us would never 



Introduction xxv 

have recognized in that blissfully naive dawn of the 1970s. 
Decades after we had the conversion experiences that issued in 
our first attempt to define a (if not the) female literary tradition, 
we were being accused of sins that in those early days we knew 
not of- — essentialism, racism, heterosexism, phallologocentrism — 
accused, sometimes shrilly, by sister feminists and, sometimes 
patronizingly, by male quasi-feminists. 

In this context, the figures of Howdy Doody and the Bride of 
Frankenstein take on new meaning. As not one but two amiably 
beaming Howdy Doodys, we were cast as establishment puppets 
just too dumb to notice that we wrote from a position of middle- 
class, white, heterosexual privilege, too foolish even to realize 
that (as Simone de Beauvoir so famously put it) "woman is made, 
not born." But if we were Brides of Frankenstein, that was even 
worse. In that case, we were wittingly or unwittingly married to — 
indeed, creatures and creations of! — patriarchy itself, with our 
implicidy phallologocentric insistence on a monolithic "plot" 
underlying the writings produced by women of letters and, worse, 
with our evil faith in the nostalgic, politically regressive concept 
of the "author" as not just a language field but a living being. 

To be sure, the theoretical sophistication of such charges, with 
their insistence on nuance, does tell us something about the 
progress feminism has made since those first starry-eyed awaken- 
ings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But such nuance may be 
precisely what we couldn't afford at a time when it was enough 
suddenly to see that there could be a new way of seeing, to beam 
like Howdy Doody at the thought, to be electrified with excite- 
ment like the Bride of Frankenstein. As for our earliest hostile 
critics, they too lacked nuance. They were almost all men and, as 
my husband once noted, their attacks on the basic arguments of 
The Madwoman could be summarized by two simple and simply 
plaintive statements. The one: "Men suffer too." The other: "My 
wife doesn't feel that way!" 

SDG: I once cautioned Sandra, "I don't believe Heathcliff is a 
woman." And more than once I quizzed her, "Do you really think 
we can get away with using the word 'penis' in the very first sen- 
tence?" So much for my inspirational role in the collaboration. 



xxvi Introduction 

Our abounding conversations — on the phone; in cars and air- 
planes, restaurants and hotel rooms; while team-teaching; at con- 
ferences; later through Fed Ex and email — shaped the writing 
even as the writing configured the conversations. But these were 
discussions that included a host of other people as well: my 
daughters, Marah and Simone, whose passionate reactions to the 
physical artifacts and acts related to our research (ranging from 
the cover of Jane Gallop's Thinking Through the Body to their 
mother's frequent absences — in their words — "on business 
trips") always enlightened me; my ex-husband, Edward Gubar, 
who facilitated our replacing the typewriter with the computer 
(since The Madwoman was composed in the era when "cut and 
paste" .meant scissors and glue); and my dear friend Mary Jo 
Weaver, who, along with my smart and supportive colleagues at 
Indiana University, was living proof that not all midwesterners 
have been or will become Pod People. 

Elliot Gilbert, Sandra's late husband, most of all: his passionate 
clarity taught us how to think, how to write, as he delivered spon- 
taneous lectures on The Magic Flute's Queen of the Night, imper- 
sonated Dickens impersonating Sykes in Oliver Twist, cracked 
Jewish jokes, executed complex recipes, polished articles that 
appeared in PMLA, or analyzed administrative politics at Davis. 
When the scholars who organized the 1999 Dickens Project at the 
University of California, Santa Cruz, decided to stage their con- 
cluding panels of papers around the twentieth birthday of The 
Madwoman, it seemed appropriate to be celebrating at an annual 
conference he helped to establish. 

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY AND AFTER 

SMG: Like Susan, I could thank countless friends and colleagues, 
as well as my children — Roger, Kathy, and Susanna — for their 
encouragement and support throughout those crucial years 
when we were working on The Madwoman. But I'd have to agree 
with her about Elliot's intellectual as well as emotional centraliry. 
Not only was he a kind of muse and mentor, he was in fact a Vic- 
torianist — the only bona fide one in my family or Susan's at that 
point. Obviously, therefore, his always invaluable advice and 



Introduction xxuii 

counsel particularly helped facilitate my passage backward from 
the twentieth century (as well as, to some extent, Susan's journey 
forward from the eighteenth century) to that fascinatingly prob- 
lematic heart of the nineteenth century known as the Victorian 
period. Susan and I weren't ourselves entirely without intellectual 
credentials for studies of that era, however, and maybe it was even 
useful that our training forced us to see Victorian letters some- 
what "slant," in the Dickinsonian sense. Susan had combined her 
work in eighteenth-century literature with attention to the his- 
tory of the novel and, more generally, to genre theory, while 
throughout graduate school I had been torn between research in 
modernism and studies of Romanticism; indeed, I'd consistently 
tried to integrate the two fields through examinations of the ways 
modernism was specifically shaped by many of the major legacies 
of Romanticism. 

Beyond our personal backgrounds, though, there were clearly 
reasons why, like so many of feminist criticism's other newly born 
women, we focused our earliest intellectual energies on the nine- 
teenth century. For one thing, most of the major texts that we 
now understood to have constituted us as female readers were in 
fact nineteenth-century texts — and of how many theoretically 
and historically "innocent" literary women could that not then 
have been said? The syllabus that became the basis for The Mad- 
woman probably reflected a canon that lived in the mind of just 
about every femme moyenne intellectuelle who spent her girlhood 
avidly devouring the classics of the female imagination produced 
by Austen and the Brontes, Mary Shelley and George Eliot, and 
yes, if the girl liked poetry, Emily Dickinson. And fortunately, a 
context for this syllabus was being explored in the early seventies 
by such social historians as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Nancy Cott, 
and Martha Vicinus, along with such pioneering critics as Ellen 
Moers and Elaine Showalter, both of whom had begun to publish 
research that would eventually be included in Moers's Literary 
Women (1976) and Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977). 
(Indeed, Elliot had even been a reader of Elaine's dissertation on 
British women novelists, completed at the University of Cali- 
fornia, Davis, in the 1960s, so that as soon as I got back to Cali- 
fornia, after the scales had fallen from my eyes on the road to The 



xxviii Introduction 

Madwoman, I immediately went to the library and began to study 
the campus copy of her bound and signed thesis.) As we noted in 
our 1979 preface, Susan and I saw it as a privilege that because 
"both Moers and Showalter [had] so skillfully traced the overall 
history" of a "female literary subculture" we could "focus closely 
on a number of nineteenth-century texts . . . crucial to that his- 
tory" (xii). 

To be sure, the nascent feminist critical movement had already 
begun a move to excavate forgotten works by women that issued 
at that point in the. resurrection or reevaluation of key texts like 
"The Yellow Wallpaper," "Goblin Market," and The Awakening 
and we certainly included such writings in the literary geography 
we undertook to map. Moreover, from studying what we recog- 
nized as the Great Mother of all feminist critical texts — meaning, 
of course, A Room of One's Own — we gained a special interest in 
half-lost but now newly found literary ladies (and I use the word 
"ladies" advisedly) like Anne Finch and Margaret Cavendish. But 
we sensed that the most powerful and empowering forces acting 
on our female imaginations and those of many other women 
readers and writers were nevertheless those four horsewomen of 
at least one kind of novelistic Apocalypse: Jane Austen, Charlotte 
Bronte, Emily Bronte, and George Eliot. And because we sensed, 
too, that the great women poets who were these writers' contem- 
poraries or descendants — notably Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 
Emily Dickinson, and Christina Rossetti — both shared in and 
were shaped by the particular, often duplicitous sensibility that 
inhabited those novelists, we experienced these poets, too, as 
powerful in a richly significant female literary tradition. 

That this tradition can be said to have different historical con- 
tours from the supposedly "mainstream" (i.e., male-dominated) 
literary history we had studied in school gave (and still gives) the 
nineteenth century additional resonance. As recendy as 1990, 
Susan and I were arguing on the page and at the podium that 
female literary history, as it emerges not just in The Madwoman 
but in our later Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, is shaped 
very differently from male literary history — that, more 
specifically, the strategy of periodization through which scholars 



Introduction xxix 

routinely struggle to make sense of fluctuations in what used to 
be called the Zeitgeist results in very different chronological pat- 
ternings for differently gendered authors. In fact, as we and 
others have observed, women's past is not always quite the same 
as men's. 1 Why, for example, do we tend to perceive a golden age 
of women's writing — the age of the Brontes, Eliot, Dickinson, 
and Rossetti, which constituted a kind of female Renaissance — 
not in what is ordinarily called the Renaissance but in the mid- 
nineteenth century? 

Of course, as scholars of early modern English literature have 
increasingly demonstrated, there were many more women of let- 
ters flourishing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than 
even that preternaturally knowledgeable feminist historian 
Virginia Woolf suspected. The table of contents of our Norton 
Anthology of Literature by Women reveals that from Mary Sidney 
Herbert, countess of Pembroke (1562-1621), and her niece 
Mary Wroth (1587?-1 651/53) to Margaret Cavendish, duchess of 
Newcastle (1623-73), and Anne Finch, countess of Winchilsea 
(1661-1720), a range of highly privileged Renaissance aristocrats 
produced sophisticated translations and intricate sonnet 
sequences, along with eloquent polemics, Utopias, epistolary vers- 
es, and a host of other manuscripts, some of which appeared in 
print but most of which were privately circulated. Perhaps even 
more strikingly — because against greater odds — a number of 
their less privileged female contemporaries also wrote and pub- 
lished significant work in these centuries. Artists who displayed 
what we would now consider a serious "professional" commit- 
ment to the craft of letters would surely include Aemelia Lanyer 
(1569-1645) and Katherine Philips (1632-64), but especially (of 
course) Anne Bradstreet (1612-72) and AphraBehn (1640-89). 

By the eighteenth century, moreover, as recent scholars have 
amply demonstrated, women had entered the literary market- 
place in earnest. From Eliza Haywood (1693?-1756) to Charlotte 
Smith (1749-1806) and Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), pioneering 
female novelists and poets didn't just u attemp[t] the pen" (as Anne 
Finch rather sardonically put it), they lived by the fruits of its 
labors. 2 And though the tradition they were slowly but surely 



xxx Introduction 

shaping may have often been deprecated or derided by male 
(and even some female) readers, though it plainly didn't feel 
comparable in weight and strength to the mainstream tradition 
forged by centuries of literary masculinity, it offered possibilities 
of place and precedent — offered a perhaps invisibly thickening 
critical mass of literary femininity— to aspiring women of letters in 
the nineteenth century. "England has had many learned ladies," 
conceded Elizabeth Barrett Browning after all, even while, per* 
haps disingenuously, claiming that she knew of no ancestral 
"poetesses" ("I look everywhere for grandmothers and find 
none"). 3 

What gave special urgency to the projects of nineteenth-cen- 
tury literary women on both sides of the Adantic, however, was 
precisely the Romantic heritage of aesthetic and political rebel- 
lion that we sought to trace throughout The Madwoman. For from 
Mary Wollstonecraft's articulation of the "Rights of Woman" to 
the abolitionist movement and the movements for national self- 
determination that fueled not only the European uprisings of 
1848 but also — and of crucial importance for the history of 
women in this period — the feminist uprising that began that 
same year in Seneca Falls, New York, the revolution in whose 
dawn Wordsworth had thought it "bliss" to be alive, evolved into 
another dawning revolution, the morning of newly blossoming 
art that inspired Barrett Browning to name her heroine Aurora 
and that Emily Dickinson, perhaps in homage to that much 
admired English precursor, was later in the century to label both 
a magical "morn by men unseen" and a "different dawn" (J.24). 
The radicalism of Jane Eyre's defiant assertion that "women feel 
just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field 
for their efforts as much as their brothers do" (chap. 12) was 
undoubtedly anticipated by the radicalism of covertly or overtly 
feminist women of letters, from the sixteenth-century Aemelia 
Lanyer to the eighteenth-century Anne Finch, but Charlotte 
Bronte's nineteenth-century heroine was to find herself in the 
company of an unprecedentedly powerful and stardingly empow- 
ering sisterhood. 

The processes strengthening that sisterhood, as we argued 
both in The Madwoman and, more recently, in the Norton 



Introduction xxxi 

Anthology of Literature by Women, had to be defined not only against 
the grain of traditional history but also against the grounds of the 
usual literary geography. Because until recendy women only ten- 
uously inhabited the public world whose national records sepa- 
rate state from state, we postulated as we worked on The Mad- 
woman that the female community out of which female literary 
tradition is constituted crosses political and national boundaries. 
In particular, we speculated that for English-speaking women, 
there are not a number of different, nationally defined nine- 
teenth centuries; there is only one — which contains and sustains 
the achievements of British and American women writers, all of 
whom were coming to terms in prose and poetry with the dis- 
crepancy between the Victorian ideology of femininity and the 
reality of Victorian women's lives. 4 And that transadantic conti- 
nuity of female imaginative enterprises has long seemed to us to 
create interesting incongruities. "What does it mean, for instance, 
that Harriet Jacobs, the author of an important slave narrative, 
was born the same year as the author of Wuthering Heights? Or 
that Sojourner Truth was born the same year as Mary Shelley? 
And why — to turn tp an issue of evaluation — does what one 
might imagine as the more exhilarating, early twentieth-century 
period of suffrage militancy seem to be characterized by lesser 
artistic voices, among poets Alice Meynell instead of Christina 
Rossetti, and among novelists May Sinclair instead of George 
Eliot? 

As this question suggests, we suspect that the centrality of nine- 
teenth-century studies for feminist criticism has still to be 
explored. On the one hand, the sexual ideology of the era was in 
many ways particularly oppressive, confining women, as Virginia 
Woolf long ago noted, not just to corsets but to the "Private 
House," with all its deprivations and discontents. But on the 
other hand, its aesthetic and political imperatives were especially 
inspiring, engendering not just a range of revolutionary move- 
ments but some of the richest productions of the female imagina- 
tion. Perhaps, I sometimes speculate, one of William Buder 
Yeats's oddest ventures into literary periodization — the enigmatic 
quatrain entided 'The Nineteenth Century and After" — best 
summarizes a feminist sense of belatedness that occasionally 



xxxii Introduction 

sweeps over those of us who are the readers, scholars, and inheri- 
tors of a tradition forged by Austen and the Brontes, Barrett 
Browning and Dickinson, Eliot and Rossetti: 

Though the great song return no more 
There's keen delight in what we have: 
The rattle of pebbles on the shore 
Under the receding wave. 5 

Readers of the three-volume sequel to The Madwoman, entitled 
No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Cen- 
tury, will know that Susan and I, often enthralled by the advances 
of twentieth-century women, don't truly share the ironic resigna- 
tion that marks Yeats's litde poem. And yet, and yet. . . 

BEYOND THE MADWOMAN 

SDG: If a brief backward glance at the early stages of feminist criti- 
cism establishes its vital origins in the Victorian period, an equally 
abbreviated look forward from the book's publication in 1979 
proves that the nineteenth century continues to provide a lively 
field of activity for feminist thinking that has undergone a series 
of dramatic methodological transformations. Actually, what star- 
ties is the discontinuity of feminism's evolution as new histori- 
cism, queer theory, postcolonialism, African-American and cul- 
tural studies as well as poststructuralist approaches altered the 
received maps of the Romantic and Victorian periods.. Although 
one of our colleagues greeted the 1980 publication of The Maniac 
in the Cellar with a tongue-in-cheek prophecy about a sequel to be 
entided The Lunatic on the Lawn, The Madwoman in the Attic was 
not cloned by our successors in nineteenth-century literary his- 
tory. 

That the figure of The Madwoman did get recycled in quite dis- 
parate domains only underscores this point. Completely unre- 
lated to our project, Germaine Greer's The Madwoman's Under- 
clothes: Essays and Occasional Writings (1987) can stand for a host 
of books, none of which deal with nineteenth-century literary his- 
tory: Ou Lu Khen and the Beautiful Madwoman, by Jessica Amanda 



Introduction xxxiii 



Salmonson (1985); The Marshal and the Madwoman, by Magdalen 
Nabb (1988); Meeting the Madwoman: An Inner Challenge for Femi- 
nine Spirit, by Linda Schierse Leonard (1993); The Letters of a Vic- 
torian Madwoman, by John S. Hughes (1993); and The Mad- 
woman's Reason: The Concept of the Appropriate in Ethical Thought, by 
Nancy J. Holland (1998). Even a work of literary criticism like 
Marta Caminero-Santangelo's recent The Madwoman Can't Speak: 
Or Why Insanity Is Not Subversive (1998) switches the ground of 
inquiry to the twentieth century. On the Internet, too, The Mad- 
woman's avatars appear in far-flung areas. Jayn Scott admits as 
much when she begins her fictional Diary of a Madwoman in the 
Attic by cheerfully acknowledging the allusion in her tide: "I 
don't remember the authors — though I know I should — but I'll 
look it up and put it in another entry"; however, no such conces- 
sion appears (or appears necessary) on other Internet pages: 
about Tori Amos, "the madwoman in the attic of pop music," for 
instance; or the "madwoman" qua "Gorgon" whom your guide 
shields you from "as you sneak down the hall from the Attic"; or 
the "Attic Chat" links to photographs of massively endowed 
women accompanied by "sexually oriented adult material 
intended for individuals 18 years of age or older." 

Yet within the more inventive, if rarified, atmosphere of acad- 
emic humanism, the most vigorous feminist approaches to nine- 
teenth-century literary history refrained from replicating The 
Madwoman's lexicon, instead taking issue with it. To be sure, after 
its publication, a number of scholars produced studies very much 
attuned to the formal and thematic issues we had addressed: one 
thinks of stimulating books on allied subjects by Margaret 
Homans, Carolyn Heilbrun, Nancy K. Miller, Nina Auerbach, Bar- 
bara Christian, Patricia Yaeger, Susan Fraiman, and Cheryl Wall. 
However, soon the field became populated with agonistic (not to 
say antagonistic) players. To avoid an inevitably incomplete and 
tedious listing of die critics of such studies, to circumvent also an 
equally boring defensiveness, we shall foreground here the ways 
nineteenth-century feminist scholarship after 1979 questioned 
each of the terms in our tide and subtitle. For the categories — of 
literature, gender, and authorship — upon which we relied have 
undergone extraordinary alterations during the past twenty 



xxxiv Introduction 

years, transformations that shifted scholarly attention from litera- 
ture to culture; from gender as a privileged lens to gender com- 
bined with sexuality, nation, race, class, religion, and a host of 
other designations; from authors to texts. Challenges to each of 
the phrases on our tide page that dramatize these changes issued 
in stimulating new work. 

The Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination: this rubric (at the 
end of our subtide) underwent a metamorphosis related pri- 
marily to issues of genre and of periodization. Although in The 
Madwoman we analyzed verse along with fiction and expository 
prose in order to posit a coherent female tradition, the last two 
decades have witnessed an exciting recovery of nineteenth- 
century women's poetry beyond that produced by the now 
canonical Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and 
Emily Dickinson. In the British context, the anthology Nineteenth- 
Century Women Poets (1996), which Isobel Armstrong compiled 
with Joseph Bristow and Cath Sharrock, can stand as a touch- 
stone of the considerable research of many other scholars on 
such figures as Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Amelia 
Opie, Felicia Hemans, L. E. L. , and Amy Levi. Not widely available 
in print before, the achievements of these literary women have 
been analyzed and taught during the 1980s and 1990s. In addi- 
tion, the Victorian Women Writers Project has put the whole 
corpus of many of these poets on the Internet. As their listing 
here demonstrates, moreover, the productivity of previously 
neglected women poets appears especially evident at the begin- 
ning of the nineteenth century and has therefore given rise to 
the new and important area of feminist analyses of women and 
Romanticism. 

Particularly in "Milton's Bogey" (chap. 6) , we presented Victo- 
rian women writers as the inheritors of Romantic tropes of a 
rebellious imaginative creativity and a visionary politics that both 
excluded and empowered them. Inevitably, this meant conceptu- 
alizing the nineteenth century as a single historical period. How- 
ever, the recent excavation not only of women's poetry but of 
women's writing in a variety of prose genres has shifted critical 
attention from the Romantic heritage of aesthetic and political 
rebelliousness we traced in mid- and late-nineteenth-century lit- 



Introduction xxxv 



erature to Romanticism andFeminism, the title Anne K. Mellor gave 
her 1988 book. Whereas the recovery of women's verse, journals, 
and letters revitalized scrutiny of late-eighteenth- and early-nine- 
teenth-century letters, Victorian studies was being stretched at 
the other end of the century by a new historicist fascination with 
law cases, theatrical venues, advertisements, paintings, early 
experiments in photography, and medical as well as religious and 
philosophical treatises. No longer defining their domain in terms 
of literature or (for that matter) "high" or elite art forms, femi- 
nist critics of fin-de-siecle American and British culture explored 
what (in volume 2 of the three-volume sequel to The Madwoman) 
we called Sexchanges (1989). Such an enterprise necessarily accen- 
tuates the need to understand literary women's evolution as an 
ongoing dialectical interaction with their male contemporaries 
within complex sexual ideologies that shaped shifting definitions 
of masculinity as profoundly as they did those of femininity. 

Given this reasoning, an understanding of the first words in 
our subtitle — The Woman Writer — had to be supplemented with 
analyses of male authors that were fueled by the work of gay and 
lesbian thinkers. By elaborating upon the theoretical insights of 
Gayle Rubin, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men (1985) 
exerted a profound impact on the mapping of Victorian fiction, 
moving scholarly investigators from the female character as an 
object of exchange toward what that commodified gift meant to 
the two men on either side of this "homosocial" transaction. 6 Just 
as Sedgwick's concept of "homosexual panic" among hetero- 
sexual men generated research attending to the influence of 
changing definitions of homo- and heterosexuality on men of let- 
ters, the range of women's relationships — as friends, siblings, 
lovers, competitors, coworkers — received greater attention when 
Adrienne Rich's "lesbian continuum" spawned discussions about 
female sexuality. 7 In the process, these studies undercut any 
monolithic idea of The Woman Writer that elided differences 
among women from various geographic regions. 

Increasingly influential within the humanities in its spotlight- 
ing of nation, postcolonial studies contested the arguments of 
our book, most dramatically in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's 
widely circulated 1985 essay "Three Women's Texts and a 



xxxvi Introduction 

Critique of Imperialism." 8 For Spivak speculated that the "cult 
text" status oijane Eyre in women's studies reflects an ideology of 
"feminist individualism in the age of imperialism" (176) that 
actively linked the feminist with the imperialist project. 
According to this postcolonial perspective, The Attic of our title 
should be identified as the site of the disenfranchised Third 
World female character on the borders of, or outside, Western 
civilization, not as that of the relatively privileged First World 
heroine. In other words, the coupling we hypothesized between 
the demure heroines and the enraged female monsters of nine- 
teenth-century literature had to be either divorced or dismissed 
as a slippage produced by fictions upon which the imperial white 
self established its precedency. Missionary in its rhetoric, the mar- 
riage making and soul making celebrated by Charlotte Bronte in 
Jane Eyre and by The Madwoman in the Attic in its interpretation of 
the novel are therefore thought to depend upon the dehuman- 
ization of Bertha Mason Rochester, the Jamaican Creole whose 
racial and geographical marginality oils the mechanism by which 
the heathen, bestial Other could be annihilated to constitute 
European female subjectivity. Throughout the 1990s, a critique 
of imperialism undertaken by British and American scholars 
expanded critical comprehension of canonical nineteenth- 
century texts by attending to the interplay between gender and 
the geopolitics of race as well as place, but it also issued in efforts 
to bring noncanonical texts by colonized and enslaved people 
into scholarly inquiry and the classroom. Jennifer DeVere 
Brody's Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian 
Culture (1998) can stand for the incursion of black feminist theo- 
ry and African-American studies into Victorian studies. 

Once not only nation and race but also class economics were 
factored into the speculations of materialist thinkers, Anglo- 
American women writers needed to be comprehended less in 
terms of the privations they suffered and more in terms of the 
privileges they enjoyed and exploited. In the 1980s, American- 
studies scholars like Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins analyzed the 
cultural centrality of women in the literary marketplace and espe- 
cially the commercial success of the sentimental fiction produced 
by nineteenth-century novelists. Their studies attempted to 



Introduction xxxvii 

thwart earlier critics' propensities to use the popularity of Amer- 
ican women of letters against them: not simply pandering to their 
readers, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps were 
engaged in revaluing women's moral and aesthetic spheres of 
influence. In the 1990s, the next wave of Americanists, consisting 
of such feminists as Hazel Carby and Lauren Berlant, explored 
the relationships between sentimentality and slavery, between cit- 
izenship and the regulation of desire in nationally as well as 
transnational engendered ideologies. 9 Considering English lit- 
erary history, two important critics — Mary Poovey and Nancy 
Armstrong — emphasized the ways literary women transmuted 
stereotypical images of femininity into sources of strength. 
According to Poovey {The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer [1984] 
and Uneven Developments [1988]) and Armstrong (Desire and 
Domestic Fiction [1987]), domestic space constitutes neither the 
imprisoning attic nor the confining parlor we stressed as a source 
of Victorian women's rage but a feminine household economy 
that helped to establish the conditions for modern institutional 
culture. 

On the one hand, scholars following the lead of Poovey and 
Armstrong explored the organized social movements that 
improved women's political and economic position in the Victo- 
rian period; on the other, they examined the ways women from 
various classes, ethnicities, and religions actually benefited from 
their contributions to the construction of domestic ideals that 
restricted female access to the public sphere. Why should every 
or any one of these enterprising nineteenth-century societal 
figures be dubbed Mad? With literary texts now supplemented by 
physicians' reports, legal briefs, legislative debates, and conduct 
books concerning divorce, child rearing, sexuality, and employ- 
ment, cultural critics thickened our sense of social history to map 
the multiple and multiply different roles various women played 
in British and American social life. Accompanying such 
expanded definitions of nineteenth-century womanhood was a 
deconstruction of such categories as woman, self, and author. 
Needless to say, the idea that a Madwoman character represents 
Victorian women's thwarted desire for authority would be singu- 
larly uncongenial to a critical approach that repudiates the con- 



xxxviii Introduction 

cept of selfhood and cannot, therefore, take seriously the 
struggle of authors or their characters toward self-sovereignty. 

In the framework established by the influential books of Michel 
Foucault, what replaces the self as a source of power are institu- 
tional regimes whose social forces shape people laboring under the 
delusion of individuality. Although it deals with literary women 
from an earlier period than Victorian times, Catherine Gallagher's 
Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 
1670-1820 (1994) views the disembodiment of women writers less 
as a psychbsexual problem, more as a requirement of the literary 
marketplace that advances their careers. 10 Nineteenth-century lit- 
erature repeatedly refers to the creation of the self; however, what 
it actually achieves — for poststructuralists — is the naturalization 
of this historical concept Under the aegis of deconstruction in, for 
example, the writings of Mary Jacobus and Toril Moi, the attack on 
the paradigm of The Madwoman could and did go beyond the con- 
tent of this particular metaphorical model (of the rebelliously dis- 
eased woman writer struggling to gain independence) to a post- 
structuralist rejection of any formulation that would lend credence 
either to the term "woman" or to the category "women writers," a 
disavowal that necessarily makes it difficult indeed to do feminist 
work in a literary historical context. Whether or not the tensions 
between poststructuralism (which made a major mark on feminist 
theory through the publications of Judith Butler in the 1990s) and 
cultural studies (with its investment in materialism) have stymied 
the production of groundbreaking scholarship, the influence of 
Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and especially Michel Foucault 
has led some critics to align themselves with a poststructuralist re- 
pudiation of "essentialism, " which makes them less interested in in- 
dividual writers as originators of meaning and more focused on 
textual production as a complex and powerful set of meaning-ef- 
fects with political implications. Since it is language that constitutes 
subjectivity, not vice versa, the split between the docile Victorian 
heroine and her mad double pales in comparison to the myth of 
an autonomous subject that drives the conceptualization of both of 
these characters (in, say, Charlotte Bronte's fiction, but also in var- 
ious chapters of Madwoman ) . 



Introduction xxxix 

Short of admiring the sophistication of such investigations, 
short of exclaiming that the implications of some of the argu- 
ments embedded in them and against The Madwoman in the Attic 
have turned us into madwomen in the academy, what can we pos- 
sible say about them? Most obviously, they demonstrate that femi- 
nist criticism in nineteenth-century studies functions as a micro- 
cosm of English in particular, the humanities in general: for good 
and for ill, the impact of new historicism, queer theory, postcolo- 
nialism, African-American studies, cultural studies, and poststruc- 
turalism has been felt in many other disciplines throughout con- 
temporary scholarship. 11 But, given the history of criticism 
during the twentieth century's fin de siecle that we have just 
traced, what is the sum effect of feminist criticism's trajectory? 
And what does the future hold for Victorianists, for feminist 
critics, for humanists, for academicians? 

THE PRESENT MOMENT 

SMG: Clearly The Madwoman's descent from the attic to the class- 
room has been in many ways a journey full of paradoxes. Pre- 
dictably enough, "her" incendiary impulses at first encountered 
considerable opposition from the antifeminist thought police. 
Less predictably, as Susan has demonstrated, even some of her 
own feminist allies soon began to express suspicion about her cre- 
dentials, while she met with outright hostility from a number of 
so-called postfeminist sisters, cousins, and aunts. Perhaps more 
surprisingly, she found that some parts of the academy into which 
she'd stepped had already been set ablaze, often by the male as 
well as female theorists, from deconstructionists to cultural 
critics, about whom Susan has been speaking. 

The world in which The Madwoman now moves, moreover, is 
virtually new — and to go on being paradoxical, I mean the word 
virtually quite literally. For what has been labeled the Information 
Revolution fostered by the lightning rise of computer technolo- 
gies will no doubt bring with it changes as enormous as those 
associated with the Industrial Revolution that marked the century 
in which she was born. What, after all, will become of those enti- 



xl Introduction 

ties quaintly known as "books" in the imminent, hypertextually 
hypersophisticated millennium? Will there be real people who 
will really read, really study, and really teach what used to be 
called literature in the brave new world toward which we're 
zooming with such alarming speed? 

Some of my formulations may seem extravagant, but all point 
to questions of serious consequence to feminist critics and, more 
generally, to the academy. Putting aside for the moment my 
hyperbole about the hypertextual, is there in this posttheoretical 
era a phenomenon we can still call "literature," which can be dis- 
tinguished from, say, telephone directories, railway schedules, 
Nordstrom catalogs, and maybe even Web pages? Are there 
people (once known as "authors") who produce that stuff, and 
people (still, I guess, known as "readers") who in some way con- 
sume it? Does it make a difference that some of those people for- 
merly known as authors are beings called "women" rather than 
beings called "men"? If so, how can we study and teach the effects 
of that difference? Further, in the hypertechnical future toward 
which we're zooming — no, let me correct myself, in the hyper- 
real future we already inhabit, with its glimmering computer 
screens, skeptical postmodernists, and decaying educational 
infrastructure — will there even be positions (once known as 
'jobs") in which people can study and teach those differences 
that shape and determine the hypothetical phenomenon once 
called literature? 

As Susan has observed, feminist criticism today "functions as a 
microcosm of English in particular, the humanities in general," 
for the intellectual history she's recounted has both responded to 
and elicited a number of notable real-wOrld effects. There are 
multiple explanations, for example, for our profession's move 
toward what we now know as theory. One of the most positive, 
surely, and I think a very cogent one, would locate the impulse to 
excavate and examine intellectual assumptions within the urge to 
question supposedly inevitable and timeless cultural arrange- 
ments that motivate feminism itself. But this analysis doesn't pre- 
clude a rather more cynical speculation, which would argue that 
the move of literary criticism toward "high" theory (note that 



Introduction xli 

adjective!) reflects the need for humanists to compete for 
funding with scientists in national and local academic arenas that 
are always, and no doubt always will be, disposed to prize "hard" 
scientists rather than "soft" humanists. 

And note those adjectives again! From a gender studies per- 
spective, as a number of thinkers (including Susan and me) have 
observed, the humanities in general and our profession in partic- 
ular have lately been increasingly feminized, both literally and 
figuratively. Literally: the membership of the Modern Language 
Association is now about 50 percent women, and graduate stu- 
dents in many departments are overwhelmingly female. Figura- 
tively: if the sciences are hard and we are soft, that's at least in 
part because we do the genteel, wifely job of acculturation and 
socialization on campus, while the guys in astrophysics shoot for 
Mars. No wonder, then, that in a world where the richly rewarded 
scientists speak a host of hard-to-acquire, difficult, private lan- 
guages, we humble, formerly plain-speaking humanists have 
yearned for sole access to a similarly difficult private discourse — a 
jargon, as it were, of our own, which would offer acolytes in our 
field the same kind of linguistic mastery that bespeaks profession- 
alism in, say, microbiologists and geologists. Along with all its 
exhilarating demolitions of philosophical and sociocultural 
cliches, "theory" has offered a "discourse" that facilitates just such 
professional certification, putting ordinary language "in ques- 
tion," substituting "subjects" or "subjectivities" for "people," and 
'language fields" for "books," while in the process alienating us 
from even the cultivated Woolfian "common readers" who used to 
be our off-campus constituency. 

Is there any remedy for this situation, or is the hyperprofes- 
sionalism whose ills I'm describing inescapable in the hypercom- 
petitive academic milieu of the future we already, surprisingly, 
inhabit? I don't have any global answers to this question, because 
I myself am just as conflicted as many of my feminist colleagues 
are these days. I obviously wouldn't want to roll back the clock in 
the Ivory Tower to that mythical moment when Wellek and 
Warren laid down the literary laws, when you had to smoke a 
pipe to be a professor, and when, as Rupert Brooke put it, there 



xlii Introduction 

was "honey still for tea." On the other hand, perhaps especially as 
a poet but also as a common reader, writer, and teacher, I share 
Adrienne Rich's "dream of a common language" for criticism as 
well as for daily life. One of the pleasures of the text that The 
Madwoman bestowed on the authorial entity known as Gilbert- 
and-Gubar was the book's popular reception. Pardy because of its 
historically privileged position as an early venture in feminist crit- 
icism, it was widely reviewed in countiess newspapers around in 
the world and in magazines like Harper's and The Atlantic as well 
as in scholarly journals. And pardy because as an early venture it 
just couldn't be as theoretically sophisticated and specialized as 
some of its granddaughters, it seems to have communicated its 
political aspirations to a number of readers outside our field. 

Can we feminist critics continue to speak in the larger world 
not as stereotypical "talking heads" but as what have come to be 
called "public intellectuals'? And can we do such a job without 
losing the disciplinary sophistication and methodological savvy 
we've so carefully cultivated? Lately, alas, the women who repre- 
sent a female (not feminist) perspective to large popular audi- 
ences tend to be called Camille Paglia, Christina Hoff Summers, 
and maybe at best Susan Faludi or Naomi Wolf. But if those of us 
who now dwell mostiy in the academy can in every sense recall 
the blissful originatory moment I mentioned earlier — the 
fleeting yet fiery instant when we feminists of the seventies real- 
ized that the personal was the political, the sexual was the textual, 
and so forth — we may find a clue as to how we should proceed. 
For perhaps our challenge today is to integrate the professional 
with both the political and the personal. The recent spate of 
memoirs by academics representing virtually the entire political 
spectrum (ranging from Alvin Kernan and Frank Kermode to 
Nancy K. Miller, Marianna Torgovnik, Jane Tompkins, and Jane 
Gallop) suggests that even those of us who suspect that as "subjec- 
tivities" we're litde more than conglomerations of "linguistic 
practices" and "cultural citations" do know how to author — and 
authorize — ourselves. Perhaps, then, millennial feminists need to 
steal a leaf from one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's most bril- 
liant books and, aligning ourselves with that eloquent collection 



Introduction xliii 

of signifiers known as "Aurora Leigh," explain to the world, 
loudly and clearly, that we too have our 

vocation, — work to do 



Most serious work, most necessary work 
As any of the economists' 

—or astrophysicists' or microbiologists'. 

SDG: Still, the difficulties of speaking as a public intellectual seem 
daunting, because it remains difficult for academics to gain 
access to the media and because we inhabit an age of specializa- 
tion. That Rich's "dream of a common language" was followed by 
her insistence on a "politics of location" hints how hard it will be 
to do Barrett Browning's "most necessary work" today. 12 Besides 
the electronic information explosion and the need to compete 
for financial support with scientists (themselves beleaguered by 
the skyrocketing costs of research) for financial support, we face 
a diversification of research not unrelated to the economic 
depression that has hit higher education at the end of the twenti- 
eth century (despite a booming economy in other arenas of 
American society) . Institutionalized during a period of retrench- 
ment (through proliferating journals, conferences, book series, 
professional organizations, undergraduate majors and minors, 
graduate programs), feminist criticism inside and outside 
women's studies has been regulated by the exigencies of the so- 
called .downsizing of the humanities. Pressure to publish, lest one 
perish; escalating levels of productivity expected of junior faculty; 
competition for fewer jobs; the overvaluation of research in pro- 
motion decisions — all have contributed to an astonishing prolif- 
eration of scholarship. But as academic publishing suffers a 
slump, we may have more difficulty getting our criticism in print 
in the future. Should the job market stay depressed, we will 
definitely continue to face difficulties in getting our Ph.D. candi- 
dates the tenure-track positions they deserve. 

If we add to all these material conditions the enormous 
amount of research that has already been produced in our var- 



xliv Introduction 

ious area studies, we might be tempted to view the hectic pace at 
which theoretical vocabularies and critical approaches go in and 
out of fashion as an index of the strenuous efforts of humanists 
to keep the ever more distant past of nineteenth-century women 
alive, to "make it new" and thus relevant to undergraduates in 
universities as well as to the culture at large. Perhaps, too, a sense 
of anxiety over mounting scholarly material focused on British 
and American literature has contributed to the efforts of critics to 
move beyond the literary sphere of novels and poems, beyond 
the geopolitical sphere of the First World. The recent marginal- 
ization of the literary and the emphasis on Third World cultures 
that have emphatically marked feminist criticism threaten to 
eliminate from our undertaking the pleasures of the aesthetic 
and the achievements of women before the twentieth century. 
Perhaps for this reason, Victorian-studies scholars, like feminist 
literary critics, increasingly find it difficult to produce the sort of 
crossover book we would like to think The Madwoman is. 

Maybe one of the tasks facing future generations, then, should 
consist in an effort not to bypass methodological sophistication 
but to harness it to more accessible modes of critical writing. How 
can we purge our critical prose of the gobbledygook of stale theo- 
retical platitudes, of hollow political grandstanding, making it 
more supple and perhaps even more fun to read for specialists 
and general readers alike? Yet another labor might involve crit- 
ical self-reflection, an effort to grapple in more depth with the 
implications of the professional and intellectual evolution of the 
humanities and the women's movement over the past several 
decades and to direct attention to the consequences of our dis- 
persal. What does it mean that Victorianists now study Hollywood 
films and produce BBC shows? That feminists can be found in vir- 
tually every methodological stripe, every area study strip? A third 
job may entail coping more productively with generational rival- 
ries, inventing ways to extend the scholarly past without trashing 
it. Certainly part of the fun of writing The Madwoman derived not 
from our generous high-mindedness in dealing with generational 
rivalry but instead from the luck of what today would be called 
our "historical positionality"; for us, there simply were no acad- 
emic feminist precursors, because feminist criticism did not exist 



Introduction xlv 

when we met and began working together on The Madwoman in 
the Attic, which accounts for our feelings of elation about being 
present at an originatory moment. 

Precisely such a sense of exhilaration must buoy up those 
critics whose works have helped to found other politicized acad- 
emic fields, disciplines like African-American studies or gay and 
lesbian studies. Just as their successors revel in their subsequent 
transformation of the field, we hope our successors in feminist 
criticism will also. For if at times we feel somewhat frayed by the 
attacks we have received, if at other times we worry about the 
obfuscatory or elitist jargon recycled theories generate, it would 
nevertheless be shortsighted to let the wrangling overwhelm our 
sense of the vitality of a feminist criticism more cantankerous but 
also more populous, more porous, more downright adventurous 
than it has ever been before. Nostalgia for originatory moments 
may be inevitable, but it would be a mistake to simplify their com- 
plexity or misuse them to generate complacency about or (worse 
yet) disengagement from the present moment: despite some suc- 
cesses, women's problems have not yet been solved either inside 
or outside the academy. Given the backlashes women's gains ordi- 
narily occasion, such nostalgia may therefore threaten to place 
feminist successors in a diminished future that hardly accords 
with the important intellectual labor that will continue to be in 
need of doing. Neither our progeny nor our replicants but very 
much our confederates, younger feminists face daunting profes- 
sional and scholarly tasks, which those of us who made our mark 
in the 1970s can undertake along with them. 

Despite our occasional bouts of cynicism, our "keen delight in 
what we have" convinces us that "the great song" to which Yeats 
turned in 'The Nineteenth Century and After," the tunes and 
tomes to which we turned in The Madwoman — the sage and savvy 
lyricism of Austen and the Brontes, Mary Shelley and Elizabeth 
Barrett Browning, George Eliot and Emily Dickinson — will 
return again and be heard in cadences that none of us can 
prophesy. For this reason, we are particularly pleased about the 
return of our book in this Yale University Press imprint slated for 
The Madwoman's twenty-first birthday, her coming of age. 



xlvi Introduction 



Notes 

1 See, for example, Joan Kelly's classic essay "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in 
Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly (Chicago: University of Chicago 
Press, 1986), pp. 19-50. 

2 Emphasis ours; see Anne Finch, countess of Winchilsea, The Introduction, " in 
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, eds., TheNorton Anthology of Literature by Women: 
The Traditions in English, 2d ed. (New York: Norton, 1996) , p. 1 68. 

3 The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon, 2 vols, in 1 (New 
York: Macmillan, 1899), 1:230-52. 

4 To be sure, analyses of distinctly American and British female literary traditions in 
the nineteenth century, have been offered by such critics as Nina Bavm {Woman's 
Fiction: A Guide-to Novels by and about Women m America, 1820-1870 [Ithaca: Cornell 
University Press, 1978] , Cheryl Walker ( The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and 
American Culture Before 1 900 [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982]), Elaine 
Showalter (A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing 
{Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977]), and Kathleen Hickock (Representa- 
tions of Women: Nineteenth-Century British Women's Poetry [Westport, Conn.: Green- 
wood, 1984]). 

5 The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan , 1 956) , p. 235. 

6 See Gayle Rubin's "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of 
Sex," in Rayna R. Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women (New York: Monthly 
Review Press, 1975), pp. 157-210. 

7 See Rich's influential "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in 
Catharine R. Sampson and Ethel Spector Person, eds., Women, Sex, and Sexuality 
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 60-91. 

8 Reprinted in Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore, eds., The Feminist Reader: Essays in 
Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989), pp. 
175-96. 

9 Among others, Annette Kolodny and Judith Fetterley also produced important 
early texts in American Studies, while Susan Jeffords, Janice Radway, Cecilia Tichi, 
Valerie Smith, Ann duCille, Robyn Wiegman, and Nellie McKay are only a sample 
of the those who have published significant later feminist studies of American cul- 
ture. 

10 Gallagher's "authorial Nobodies" (Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, Charlotte 
Lennox, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth) stress their femininity and dispos- 
session in a "rhetoric of authorship" that they deploy to present themselves as 
merely "effects of exchange" (xix, xxi) , but that paradoxically thereby gains them 
considerable financial advantage. 

11 Amanda Anderson's recent efforts in Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of 
Fallenness in Victorian Culture (1993) to get beyond the current dilemma over the 
evaporation of agency and the reification of subjectivity in poststructuralist ap- 
proaches to gender suggest that Victorian literary scholars will continue to play a 
pivotal role in the future evolution of feminist theorizing. 

12 See Rich's "Notes toward a Politics of Location," in Myriam Diaz-Diocaretz and Iris 
M. Zavala, eds., Women, Feminist Identity, and Society in the 1980s (Amsterdam: John 
Benjamins, 1985) , pp. 5-22. 



I 

Toward a Feminist Poetics 




The Queen's Looking Glass : Female 
Creativity, Male Images of Women, 
and the Metaphor of Literary 
Paternity 



And the lady of the house was seen only as she appeared in each 
room, according to the nature of the lord of the room. None saw 
the whole of her, none but herself. For the light which she was was 
both her mirror and her body. None could tell the whole of her, 
none but herself. 

— Laura Riding 

Alas! A woman that attempts the pen 
Such an intruder on the rights of men, 
Such a presumptuous Creature is esteem'd 
The fault can by no vertue be redeem'd. 
— Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea 

As to all that nonsense Henry and Larry talked about, the necessity 
of "I am God" in order to create (I suppose they mean "I am God, 
I am not a woman"). . . . this "I am God," which makes creation an 
act of solitude and pride, this image of God alone making sky, earth, 
sea, it is this image which has confused woman. 

— Anals Nin 



Is a pen a metaphorical penis? Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to 
have thought so. In a letter to his friend R. W. Dixon in 1886 he 
confided a crucial feature of his theory of poetry. The artist's "most 
essential quality," he declared, is "masterly execution, which is a 
kind of male gift, and especially marks off men from women, the 
begetting of one's thought on paper, on verse, or whatever the matter 
is." In addition, he noted that "on better consideration it strikes me 
that the mastery I speak of is not so much in the mind as a puberty 
in the life of that quality. The male quality is the creative gift." 1 



Toward a Feminist Poetics 



Male sexuality, in other words, is not just analogically but actually 
the essence of literary power. The poet's pen is in some sense (even 
more than figuratively) a penis. 

Eccentric and obscure though he was, Hopkins was articulating 
a concept central to that Victorian culture of which he was in this 
case a representative male citizen. But of course the patriarchal 
notion that the writer "fathers" his text just as God fathered the 
world is and has been all-pervasive in Western literary civilization, 
so much so that, as Edward Said has shown, the metaphor is built 
into the very word, author, with which writer, deity, and paterfamilias 
are identified. Said's miniature meditation on the word authority 
is worth quoting in full because it summarizes so much that is relevant 
here: 

Authority suggests to me a constellation of linked meanings: not 
only, as the OED tells us, "a power to enforce obedience," 
or "a derived or delegated power," or "a power to influence 
action," or "a power to inspire belief," or "a person whose 
opinion is accepted"; not only those, but a connection as well 
with author — that is, a person who originates or gives existence 
to something, a begetter, beginner, father, or ancestor, a person 
also who sets forth written statements. There is still another 
cluster of meanings : author is tied to the past participle auctus of 
the verb augere ; therefore auctor, according to Eric Partridge, is 
literally an increaser and thus a founder. Auctoritas is production, 
invention, cause, in addition to meaning a right of possession. 
Finally, it means continuance, or a causing to continue. Taken 
together these meanings are all grounded in the following 
notions: (1) that of the power of an individual to initiate, 
institute, establish — in short, to begin; (2) that this power and 
its product are an increase over what had been there previously; 
(3) that the individual wielding this power controls its issue and 
what is derived therefrom; (4) that authority maintains the 
continuity of its course. 2 

In conclusion, Said, who is discussing "The Novel as Beginning 
Intention," remarks that "All four of these [last] abstractions can 
be used to describe the way in which narrative fiction asserts itself 
psychologically and aesthetically through the technical efforts of the 



The Queen's Looking Glass 



novelist." But they can also, of course, be used to describe both the 
author and the authority of any literary text, a point Hopkins's 
sexual/aesthetic theory seems to have been designed to elaborate. 
Indeed, Said himself later observes that a convention of most literary 
texts is "that the unity or integrity of the text is maintained by a series 
of genealogical connections: author — text, beginning-middle-end, 
text — meaning, reader — interpretation, and so on. Underneath all 
these is the imagery of succession, of paternity, or hierarchy" (italics ours). 3 
There is a sense in which the very notion of paternity is itself, as 
Stephen Dedal us puts it in Ulysses, a "legal fiction," 4 a story requiring 
imagination if not faith. A man cannot verify his fatherhood by 
either sense or reason, after all; that his child is his is in a sense a 
tale he tells himself to explain the infant's existence. Obviously, the 
anxiety implicit in such storytelling urgently needs not only the re- 
assurances of male superiority that patriarchal misogyny implies, but 
also such compensatory fictions of the Word as those embodied in 
the genealogical imagery Said describes. Thus it is possible to trace 
the history of this compensatory, sometimes frankly stated and some- 
times submerged imagery that elaborates upon what Stephen Dedal us 
calls the "mystical estate" of paternity 5 through the works of many 
literary theoreticians besides Hopkins and Said. Defining poetry as 
a mirror held up to nature, the mimetic aesthetic that begins with 
Aristotle and descends through Sidney, Shakespeare, and Johnson 
implies that the poet, like a lesser God, has made or engendered an 
alternative, mirror-universe in which he actually seems to enclose or 
trap shadows of reality. Similarly, Coleridge's Romantic concept of 
the human "imagination or esemplastic power" is of a virile, genera- 
tive force which echoes "the eternal act of creation in the infinite I 
AM," while Ruskin's phallic-sounding "Penetrative Imagination" is 
a "possession-taking faculty" and a "piercing . . . mind's tongue" that 
seizes, cuts down, and gets at the root of experience in order "to 
throw up what new shoots it will." 6 In all these aesthetics the poet, 
like God the Father, is a paternalistic ruler of the Active world he has 
created. Shelley called him a "legislator." Keats noted, speaking of 
writers, that "the antients [sic] were Emperors of vast Provinces" 
though "each of the moderns" is merely an "Elector of Hanover." 7 
In medieval philosophy, the network of connections among sexual, 
literary, and theological metaphors is equally complex: God the 



Toward a Feminist Poetics 



Father both engenders the cosmos and, as Ernst Robert Curtius 
notes, writes the Book of Nature : both tropes describe a single act 
of creation.* In addition, the Heavenly Author's ultimate eschato- 
logical power is made manifest when, as the Liber Scriptus of the 
traditional requiem mass indicates, He writes the Book of Judgment. 
More recently, male artists like the Earl of Rochester in the seven- 
teenth century and Auguste Renoir in the nineteenth, have frankly 
defined aesthetics based on male sexual delight. "I . . . never Rhym'd, 
but for my Pintle's [penis's] sake," declares Rochester's witty Timon,' 
and (according to the painter Bridget Riley) Renoir "is supposed to 
have said that he painted his paintings with his prick." 10 Clearly, 
both these artists believe, with Norman O. Brown, that "the penis 
is the head of the body," and they might both agree, too, with John 
Irwin's suggestion that the relationship "of the masculine self with 
the feminine-masculine work is also an autoerotic act ... a kind of 
creative onanism in which through the use of the phallic pen on the 
'pure space' of the virgin page . . . the self is continually spent and 
wasted. . . . "" No doubt it is for all these reasons, moreover, that 
poets have traditionally used a vocabulary derived from the patri- 
archal "family romance" to describe their relations with each other. 
As Harold Bloom has pointed out, "from the sons of Homer to the 
sons of Ben Jonson, poetic influence [has] been described as a filial 
relationship," a relationship of "sonskip." The fierce struggle at the 
heart of literary history, says Bloom, is a "batde between strong 
equals, father and son as mighty opposites, Laius and Oedipus at 
the crossroads." 12 

Though many of these writers use the metaphor of literary paternity 
in different ways and for different purposes, all seem overwhelmingly 
to agree that a literary text is not only speech quite literally embodied, 
but also power mysteriously made manifest, made flesh. In patri- 
archal Western culture, therefore, the text's author is a father, a 
progenitor, a procreator, an aesthetic patriarch whose pen is an 
instrument of generative power like his penis. More, his pen's power, 
like his penis's power, is not just the ability to generate life but the 
power to create a posterity to which he lays claim, as, in Said's 
paraphrase of Partridge, "an increaser and thus a founder." In this 
respect, the pen is truly mightier than its phallic counterpart the 
sword, and in patriarchy more resonandy sexual. Not only does the 



The Queen's Looking Glass 



writer respond to his muse's quasi-sexual excitation with an out- 
pouring of the aesthetic energy Hopkins called "the fine delight that 
fathers thought" — a delight poured seminally from pen to page — but 
as the author of an enduring text the writer engages the attention 
of the future in exactly the same way that a king (or father) "owns" 
the homage of the present. No sword-wielding general could rule so 
long or possess so vast a kingdom. 

Finally, that such a notion of "ownership" or possession is em- 
bedded in the metaphor of paternity leads to yet another implication 
of this complex metaphor. For if the author/father is owner of his 
text and of his reader's attention, he is also, of course, owner/possessor 
of the subjects of his text, that is to say of those figures, scenes, and 
events — those brain children — he has both incarnated in black and 
white and "bound" in cloth or leather. Thus, because he is an author, 
a "man of letters" is simultaneously, like his divine counterpart, 
a father, a master or ruler, and an owner : the spiritual type of a 
patriarch, as we understand that term in Western society. 



Where does such an implicitly or explicitly patriarchal theory of 
literature leave literary women? If the pen is a metaphorical penis, 
with what organ can females generate texts? The question may seem 
frivolous, but as our epigraph from Ana'fs Nin indicates, both the 
patriarchal etiology that defines a solitary Father God as the only 
creator of all things, and the male metaphors of literary creation that 
depend upon such an etiology, have long "confused" literary women, 
readers and writers alike. For what if such a proudly masculine 
cosmic Author is the sole legitimate model for all earthly authors? 
Or worse, what if the male generative power is not just the only 
legitimate power but the only power there is? That literary theore- 
ticians from Aristotle to Hopkins seemed to believe this was so no 
doubt prevented many women from ever "attempting the pen" — to 
use Anne Finch's phrase — and caused enormous anxiety in gener- 
ations of those women who were "presumptuous" enough to dare 
such an attempt. Jane Austen's Anne Elliot understates the case 
when she decorously observes, toward the end of Persuasion, that 
"men have had every advantage of us in telling their story. Education 
has been theirs in so much higher a degree ; the pen has been in their 



Toward a Feminist Poetics 



hands" (II, chap. II). 13 For, as Anne Finch's complaint suggests, 
the pen has been defined as not just accidentally but essentially a 
male "tool," and therefore not only inappropriate but actually alien 
to women. Lacking Austen's demure irony, Finch's passionate 
protest goes almost as far toward the center of the metaphor of liter- 
ary paternity as Hopkins's letter to Canon Dixon. Not only is "a 
woman that attempts the pen" an intrusive and "presumptuous 
Creature," she is absolutely unredeemable: no virtue can outweigh 
the "fault" of her presumption because she has grotesquely crossed 
boundaries dictated by Nature: 

They tell us, we mistake our sex and way; 
Good breeding, fassion, dancing, dressing, play 
Are the accomplishments we shou'd desire ; 
To write, or read, or think, or to enquire 
Wou'd cloud our beauty, and exaust our time, 
And interrupt the conquests of our prime; 
Whilst the dull mannage, of a servile house 
Is held by some, our outmost art and use. 14 

Because they are by definition male activities, this passage implies, 
writing, reading, and thinking are not only alien but also inimical 
to "female" characteristics. One hundred years later, in a famous 
letter to Charlotte Bronte, Robert Southey rephrased the same notion : 
"Literature is not the business of a woman's life, and it cannot be." 18 
It cannot be, the metaphor of literary paternity implies, because it 
is physiologically as well as sociologically impossible. If male sexuality 
is integrally associated with the assertive presence of literary power, 
female sexuality is associated with the absence of such power, with 
the idea — expressed by the nineteenth-century thinker Otto Wein- 
inger — that "woman has no share in ontological reality." As we 
shall see, a further implication of the paternity/creativity metaphor 
is the notion (implicit both in Weininger and in Southey's letter) 
that women exist only to be acted on by men, both as literary and 
as sensual objects. Again one of Anne Finch's poems explores the 
assumptions submerged in so many literary theories. Addressing three 
male poets, she exclaims : 

Happy you three ! happy the Race of Men ! 

Born to inform or to correct the Pen 

To proffitts pleasures freedom and command 



The Qjuen's Looking Glass 



Whilst wc beside you but as Cyphers stand 

T' increase your Numbers and to swell th' account 

Of your delights which from our charms amount 

And sadly are by this distinction taught 

That since the Fall (by our seducement wrought) 

Our is the greater losse as ours the greater fault. 1 ' 

Since Eve's daughters have fallen so much lower than Adam's sons, 
this passage says, all females are "Cyphers" — nullities, vacancies — 
existing merely and punningly to increase male "Numbers" (either 
poems or persons) by pleasuring either men's bodies or their minds, 
their penises or their pens. 

In that case, however, devoid of what Richard Chase once called 
"the masculine Han," and implicidy rejecting even the slavish con- 
solations of her "femininity," a literary woman is doubly a "Cypher," 
for she is really a "eunuch," to use the striking figure Germaine 
Greer applied to all women in patriarchal society. Thus Anthony 
Burgess recently declared that Jane Austen's novels fail because her 
writing "lacks a strong male thrust," and William Gass lamented 
that literary women "lack that blood congested genital drive which 
energizes every great style." 1 ' The assumptions that underlie their 
statements were articulated more than a century ago by the nine- 
teenth-century editor-critic Rufus Griswold. Introducing an antho- 
logy entitled The Female Poets of America, Griswold oudined a theory 
of literary sex roles which builds upon, and clarifies, these grim im- 
plications of the metaphor of literary paternity. 

It is less easy to be assured of the genuineness of literary ability 
in women than in men. The moral nature of women, in its 
finest and richest development, partakes of some of the qualities 
of genius; it assumes, at least, the similitude of that which in 
men is the characteristic or accompaniment of the highest grade 
of mental inspiration. We are in danger, therefore, of mistaking 
for the efflorescent energy of creative intelligence, that which 
is only the exuberance of personal "feelings unemployed." . . . 
The most exquisite susceptibility of the spirit, and the capacity 
to mirror in dazzling variety the effects which circumstances 
or surrounding minds work upon it, may be accompanied by 
no power to originate, nor even, in any proper sense, to reproduce. [Italics 
ours] 18 



10 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

Since Griswold has actually compiled a collection of poems by women, 
he plainly does not believe that all women lack reproductive or 
generative literary power all the time. His gender-definitions imply, 
however, that when such creative energy appears in a woman it 
may be anomalous, freakish, because as a "male" characteristic it 
is essentially "unfeminine." 

The converse of these explicit and implicit definitions of "femi- 
ninity" may also be true for those who develop literary theories 
based upon the "mystical estate" of fatherhood : if a woman lacks 
generative literary power, then a man who loses or abuses such power 
becomes like a eunuch — or like a woman. When the imprisoned 
Marquis de Sade was denied "any use of pencil, ink, pen, and paper," 
declares Roland Barthes, he was figuratively emasculated, for "the 
scriptural sperm" could flow no longer, and "without exercise, with- 
out a pen, Sade [become] bloated, [became] a eunuch." Similarly, 
when Hopkins wanted to explain to R. W. Dixon the aesthetic 
consequences of a lack of male mastery, he seized upon an explanation 
which developed the implicit parallel between women and eunuchs, 
declaring that "if the life" is not "conveyed into the work and . . . 
displayed there . . . the product is one of those hens , eggs that are good 
to eat and look just like live ones but never hatch" (italics ours). 19 
And when, late in his life, he tried to define his own sense of sterility, 
his thickening writer's block, he described himself (in the sonnet 
"The Fine Delight That Fathers Thought") both as a eunuch and 
as a woman, specifically a woman deserted by male power : "the widow 
of an insight lost," surviving in a diminished "winter world" that 
entirely lacks "the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation" of male 
generative power, whose "strong / Spur" is phallically "live and 
lancing like the blow pipe flame." And once again some lines from 
one of Anne Finch's plaintive protests against male literary hegemony 
seem to support Hopkins's image of the powerless and sterile woman 
artist. Remarking in the conclusion of her "Introduction" to her 
Poems that women are "to be dull / Expected and dessigned" she 
does not repudiate such expectations, but on the contrary admonishes 
herself, with bitter irony, to be dull: 

Be caution'd then my Muse, and still retir'd ; 
Nor be dispis'd, aiming to be admir'd ; 



The Qjieen's Looking Glass 11 

Conscious of wants, still with contracted wing, 

To some few friends, and to thy sorrows sing; 

For groves of Lawrell, thou wert never meant; 

Be dark enough thy shades, and be thou there content. 80 

Cut off from generative energy, in a dark and wintry world, Finch 
seems to be defining herself here not only as a "Cypher" but as "the 
widow of an insight lost." 



Finch's despairing (if ironic) acceptance of male expectations and 
designs summarizes in a single episode the coercive power not only 
of cultural constraints but of the literary texts which incarnate them. 
For it is as much from literature as from "life" that literate women 
learn they are "to be dull / Expected and dessigned." As Leo Bersani 
puts it, written "language doesn't merely describe identity but 
actually produces moral and perhaps even physical identity. . . . We 
have to allow for a kind of dissolution or at least elasticity of being 
induced by an immersion in literature."* 1 A century and a half 
earlier, Jane Austen had Anne Elliot's interlocutor, Captain Harville, 
make a related point in Persuasion. Arguing women's inconstancy 
over Anne's heated objections, he notes that "all histories are against 
you — all stories, prose, and verse. ... I could bring you fifty quota- 
tions in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I 
ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon 
woman's inconstancy" (II, chap. 11). To this Anne responds, as 
we have seen, that the pen has been in male hands. In the context 
of Harville's speech, her remark implies that women have not only 
been excluded from authorship but in addition they have been sub- 
just to (and subjects of) male authority. With Chaucer's astute Wife 
of Bath, therefore, Anne might demand, "Who peynted the leoun, 
tel me who?" And, like the Wife's, her own answer to her own 
rhetorical question would emphasize our culture's historical confusion 
of literary authorship with patriarchal authority: 

By God, if wommen hadde writen stories, 

As clerkes han withinne hir oratories, 

They wolde han writen of men more wikednesse 

Than all the mark of Adam may redresse. 



12 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

In other words, what Bersani, Austen, and Chaucer all imply is 
that, precisely because a writer "fathers" his text, his literary crea- 
tions (as we pointed out earlier) are his possession, his property. 
Having denned them in language and thus generated them, he owns 
them, controls them, and encloses them on the printed page. Describ- 
ing his earliest sense of vocation as a writer, Jean-Paul Sartre recalled 
in Les Mots his childhood belief that "to write was to engrave new 
beings upon [the infinite Tables of the Word] or ... to catch living 
things in the trap of phrases." 82 Naive as such a notion may seem on 
the face of it, it is not "wholly an illusion, for it is his [Sartre's] truth," 
as one commentator observes* 3 — and indeed it is every writer's 
"truth," a truth which has traditionally led male authors to assume 
patriarchal rights of ownership over the female "characters" they 
engrave upon "the infinite Tables of the Word." 

Male authors have also, of course, generated male characters over 
whom they would seem to have had similar rights of ownership. 
But further implicit in the metaphor of literary paternity is the idea 
that each man, arriving at what Hopkins called the "puberty" of 
his creative gift, has the ability, even perhaps the obligation, to talk 
back to other men by generating alternative fictions of his own. 
Lacking the pen/penis which would enable them similarly to refute 
one fiction by another, women in patriarchal societies have histori- 
cally been reduced to mere properties, to characters and images im- 
prisoned in male texts because generated solely, as Anne Elliot and 
Anne Finch observe, by male expectations and designs. 

Like the metaphor of literary paternity itself, this corollary notion 
that the chief creature man has generated is woman has a long and 
complex history. From Eve, Minerva, Sophia, and Galatea onward, 
after all, patriarchal mythology defines women as created by, from, 
and for men, the children of male brains, ribs, and ingenuity. For 
Blake the eternal female was at her best an Emanation of the male 
creative principle. For Shelley she was an epi-psyche, a soul out of 
the poet's soul, whose inception paralleled on a spiritual plane the 
solider births of Eve and Minerva. Throughout the history of Western 
culture, moreover, male-engendered female figures as superficially 
disparate as Milton's Sin, Swift's Chloe, and Yeats's Crazy Jane 
have incarnated men's ambivalence not only toward female sexuality 
but toward their own (male) physicality. At the same time, male 



The Queen's Looking Glass 13 

texts, continually elaborating the metaphor of literary paternity, have 
continually proclaimed that, in Honore de Balzac's ambiguous words, 
"woman's virtue is man's greatest invention." 24 A characteristically 
condensed and oracular comment by Norman O. Brown perfectly 
summarizes the assumptions on which all such texts are based : 

Poetry, the creative act, the act of life, the archetypal sexual act. 
Sexuality is poetry. The lady is our creation, or Pygmalion's 
statue. The lady is the poem; [Petrarch's] Laura is, really, 
poetry. 4s 

No doubt this complex of metaphors and etiologies simply reflects 
not just the fiercely patriarchal structure of Western society but also 
the underpinning of misogyny upon which that severe patriarchy 
has stood. The roots of "authority" tell us, after all, that if woman is 
man's property then he must have authored her, just as surely as 
they tell us that if he authored her she must be his property. As a 
creation "penned" by man, moreover, woman has been "penned up" 
or "penned in." As a sort of "sentence" man has spoken, she has 
herself been "sentenced": fated, jailed, for he has both "indited" 
her and "indicted" her. As a thought he has "framed," she has been 
both "framed" (enclosed) in his texts, glyphs, graphics, and "framed 
up" (found guilty, found wanting) in his cosmologies. For as Humpty 
Dumpty tells Alice in Through the Looking Glass, the "master" of 
words, utterances, phrases, literary properties, "can manage the 
whole lot of them!" 2 * The etymology and etiology of masculine 
authority are, it seems, almost necessarily identical. However, for 
women who felt themselves to be more than, in every sense, the 
properties of literary texts, the problem posed by such authority was 
neither metaphysical nor philological, but (as the pain expressed by 
Anne Finch and Anne Elliot indicates) psychological. Since both 
patriarchy and its texts subordinate and imprison women, before 
women can even attempt that pen which is so rigorously kept from 
them they must escape just those male texts which, defining them 
as "Cyphers," deny them the autonomy to formulate alternatives 
to the authority that has imprisoned them and kept them from 
attempting the pen. 

The vicious circularity of this problem helps explain the curious 
passivity with which Finch responded (or pretended to respond) to 



14 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

male expectations and designs, and it helps explain, too, the centuries- 
long silence of so many women who must have had talents comparable 
to Finch's. A final paradox of the metaphor of literary paternity is 
the fact that in the same way an author both generates and imprisons 
his fictive creatures, he silences them by depriving them of autonomy 
(that is, of the power of independent speech) even as he gives them 
life. He silences them and, as Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" 
suggests, he stills them, or — embedding them in the marble of his 
art — kills them. As Albert Gelpi neady puts it, "the artist kills 
experience into art, for temporal experience can only escape death 
by dying into the 'immortality' of artistic form. The fixity of 'life' 
in art and the fluidity of 'life' in nature are incompatible." 27 The pen, 
therefore, is not only mightier than the sword, it is also like the sword 
in its power — its need, even — to kill. And this last attribute of the 
pen once again seems to be associatively linked with its metaphorical 
maleness. Simone de Beauvoir has commented that the human male's 
"transcendence" of nature is symbolized by his ability to hunt and 
kill, just as the human female's identification with nature, her role 
as a symbol of immanence, is expressed by her central involvement 
in that life-giving but involuntary birth process which perpetuates the 
species. Thus, superiority — or authority — "has been accorded in 
humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills." ** 
In D. H. Lawrence's words, "the Lords of Life are the Masters of 
Death" — and therefore, patriarchal poetics implies, they are the 
masters of art. 8 * 

Commentators on female subordination from Freud and Homey 
to de Beauvoir, Wolfgang Lederer, and most recendy, Dorothy 
Dinnerstein, have of course explored other aspects of the relationship 
between the sexes that also lead men to want figuratively to "kill" 
women. What Homey called male "dread" of the female is a phe- 
nomenon to which Lederer has devoted a long and scholarly book. 30 
Elaborating on de Beauvoir's assertion that as mother of life "woman's 
first lie, her first treason [seems to be] that of life itself — life which, 
though clothed in the most attractive forms, is always infested by the 
ferments of age and death," Lederer remarks upon woman's own 
tendency to "kill" herself into art in order "to appeal to man" : 

From the Paleolithic on, we have evidence that woman, through 
careful coiffure, through adornment and makeup, tried to stress 



The Queen's Looking Glass 15 

the eternal type rather than the mortal self. Such makeup, in 
Africa or Japan, may reach the, to us, somewhat estranging 
degree of a lifeless mask — and yet that is precisely the purpose 
of it: where nothing is lifelike, nothing speaks of death. 31 

For yet another reason, then, it is no wonder that women have 
historically hesitated to attempt the pen. Authored by a male God 
and by a godlike male, killed into a "perfect" image of herself, the 
woman writer's self-contemplation may be said to have begun with 
a searching glance into tne mirror of the male-inscribed literary 
text. There she would see at first only those eternal lineaments fixed 
on her like a mask' to conceal her dreadful and bloody link to nature. 
But looking long enough, looking hard enough, she would see — like 
the speaker of Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's "The Other Side of the 
Mirror" — an enraged prisoner: herself. The poem describing this 
vision is central to the feminist poetics we are trying to construct : 

I sat before my glass one day, 

And conjured up a vision bare, 
Unlike the aspects glad and gay, 

That erst were found reflected there — 
The vision of a woman, wild 

With more than womanly despair. 

Her hair stood back on either side 

A face bereft of loveliness. 
It had no envy now to hide 

What once no man on earth could guess. 
It formed the thorny aureole 

Of hard unsanctified distress. 

Her lips were open — not a sound 

Came through the parted lines of red. 
Whate'er it was, the hideous wound 

In silence and in secret bled. 
No sigh relieved her speechless woe, 

She had no voice to speak her dread. 

And in her lurid eyes there shone 
The dying flame of life's desire, 
Made mad because its hope was gone, 



16 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

And kindled at the leaping fire 
Of jealousy, and fierce revenge, 
And strength that could not change nor tire. 

Shade of a shadow in the glass, 

O set the crystal surface free ! 
Pass — as the fairer visions pass — 

Nor ever more return, to be 
The ghost of a distracted hour, 
That heard me whisper, 'I am she!' 32 

What this poem suggests is that, although the woman who is the 
prisoner of the mirror/text's images has "no voice to speak her dread," 
although "no sigh" interrupts "her speechless woe," she has an 
invincible sense of her own autonomy, her own interiority ; she has a 
sense, to paraphrase Chaucer's Wife of Bath, of the authority of her 
own experience. 38 The power of metaphor, says Mary Elizabeth 
Coleridge's poem, can only extend so far. Finally, no human creature 
can be completely silenced by a text or by an image. Just as stories 
notoriously have a habit of "getting away" from their authors, human 
beings since Eden have had a habit of defying authority, both divine 
and literary. 34 

Once more the debate in which Austen's Anne Elliot and her 
Captain Harville engage is relevant here, for it is surely no accident 
that the question these two characters are discussing is woman's 
"inconstancy" — her refusal, that is, to be fixed or "killed" by an 
author/owner, her stubborn insistence on her own way. That male 
authors berate her for this refusal even while they themselves generate 
female characters who (as we shall see) perversely display "mon- 
strous" autonomy is one of the ironies of literary art. From a female 
perspective, however, such "inconstancy" can only be encouraging, 
for — implying duplicity — it suggests that women themselves have 
the power to create themselves as characters, even perhaps the power 
to reach toward the woman trapped on the other side of the mirror/ 
text and help her to climb out. 

Before the woman writer can journey through the looking glass 
toward literary autonomy, however, she must come to terms with 



The Qyecn's Looking Glass 17 

the images on the surface of the glass, with, that is, those mythic 
masks male artists have fastened over her human face both to lessen 
their dread of her "inconstancy" and — by identifying her with the 
"eternal types" they have themselves invented — to possess her more 
thoroughly. Specifically, as we will try to show here, a woman writer 
must examine, assimilate, and transcend the extreme images of 
"angel" and "monster" which male authors have generated for her. 
Before we women can write, declared Virginia Woolf, we must "kill" 
the "angel in the house." 34 In other words, women must kill the 
aesthetic ideal through which they themselves have been "killed" 
into art. And similarly, all women writers must kill the angel's 
necessary opposite and double, the "monster" in the house, whose 
Medusa-face also kills female creativity. For us as feminist critics, 
however, the Woolfian act of "killing" both angels and monsters must 
here begin with an understanding of the nature and origin of these 
images. At this point in our construction of a feminist poetics, then, 
we really must dissect in order to murder. And we must particularly 
do this in order to understand literature by women because, as we 
shall show, the images of "angel" and "monster" have been so ubiq- 
uitous throughout literature by men that they have also pervaded 
women's writing to such an extent that few women have definitively 
"killed" either figure. Rather, the female imagination has perceived 
itself, as it were, through a glass darkly : until quite recently the woman 
writer has had (if only unconsciously) to define herself as a mysterious 
creature who resides behind the angel or monster or angel/monster 
image that lives on what Mary Elizabeth Coleridge called "the 
crystal surface." 

For all literary artists, of course, self-definition necessarily precedes 
self-assertion: the creative "I am" cannot be uttered if the "I" knows 
not what it is. But for the female artist the essential process of self- 
definition is complicated by all those patriarchal definitions that 
intervene between herself and herself. From Anne Finch's Ardelia, 
who struggles to escape the male designs in which she feels herself 
enmeshed, to Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus," who tells "Herr 
Doktor . . . Herr Enemy" that "I am your opus, / 1 am your valu- 
able," 3 * the woman writer acknowledges with pain, confusion, and 
anger that what she sees in the mirror is usually a male construct, 
the "pure gold baby" of male brains, a glittering and wholly artificial 



18 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

child. With Christina Rossetti, moreover, she realizes that the male 
artist often "feeds" upon his female subject's face "not as she is but 
as she fills his dreams." 37 Finally, as "A Woman's Poem" of 1859 
simply puts it, the woman writer insists that "You [men] make the 
worlds wherein you move. . . . Our world (alas you make that too!)" 
— and in its narrow confines, "shut in four blank walls ... we act 
our parts." 38 

Though the highly stylized women's roles to which this last poem 
alludes are all ultimately variations upon the roles of angel and 
monster, they seem on the surface quite varied, because so many 
masks, reflecting such an elaborate typology, have been invented 
for women. A crucial passage from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 
Aurora Leigh suggests both the mystifying deathliness and the mys- 
terious variety female artists perceive in male imagery of women. 
Contemplating a portrait of her mother which, significantly, was 
made after its subject was dead (so that it is a kind of death mask, 
an image of a woman metaphorically killed into art) the young 
Aurora broods on the work's iconography. Noting that her mother's 
chambermaid had insisted upon having her dead mistress painted 
in "the red stiff silk" of her court dress rather than in an "English- 
fashioned shroud," she remarks that the effect of this unlikely costume 
was "very strange." As the child stared at the painting, her mother's 
"swan-like supernatural white life" seemed to mingle with "whatever 
I last read, or heard, or dreamed," and thus in its charismatic beauty, 
her mother's image became 

by turns 
Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite; 
A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate ; 
A loving Psyche who loses sight of Love ; 
A still Medusa with mild milky brows, 
All curdled and all clothed upon with snakes 
Whose slime falls fast as sweat will ; or anon 
Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords 
Where the Babe sucked ; or Lamia in her first 
Moonlighted pallor, ere she shrunk and blinked, 
And shuddering wriggled down to the unclean; 
Or my own mother, leaving her last smile 



The Qjuen's Looking Glass 19 

In her last kiss upon the baby-mouth 
My father pushed down on the bed for that; 
Or my dead mother, without smile or kiss, 
Buried at Florence. 39 

The female forms Aurora sees in her dead mother's picture are 
extreme, melodramatic, gothic — "Ghost, Rend, and angel, fairy, 
witch, and sprite" — specifically, as she tells us, because her reading 
merges with her seeing. What this implies, however, is not only that 
she herself is fated to inhabit male-defined masks and costumes, as 
her mother did, but that male-defined masks and costumes inevitably 
inhabit her, altering her vision. Aurora's self-development as a poet is 
the central concern of Barrett Browning's Bildungsroman in verse, but 
if she is to be a poet she must deconstruct the dead self that is a male 
"opus" and discover a living, "inconstant" self. She must, in other 
words, replace the "copy" with the "individuality," as Barrett 
Browning once said she thought she herself had done in her mature 
art. 40 Significantly, however, the "copy" selves depicted in Aurora's 
mother's portrait ultimately represent, once again, the moral extremes 
of angel ("angel," "fairy," and perhaps "sprite") and monster 
("ghost," "witch," "fiend"). 

In her brilliant and influential analysis of the question "Is Female 
to Male as Nature Is to Culture?" the anthropologist Sherry Ortner 
notes that in every society "the psychic mode associated with women 
seems to stand at both the bottom and the top of the scale of human 
modes of relating." Attempting to account for this "symbolic ambi- 
guity," Ortner explains "both the subversive feminine symbols 
(witches, evil eye, menstrual pollution, castrating mothers) and the 
feminine symbols of transcendence (mother goddesses, merciful dis- 
pensers of salvation, female symbols of justice)" by pointing out that 
women "can appear from certain points of view to stand both 
under and over (but really simply outside of) the sphere of culture's 
hegemony." 41 That is, precisely because a woman is denied the au- 
tonomy — the subjectivity — that the pen represents, she is not only 
excluded from culture (whose emblem might well be the pen) but 
she also becomes herself an embodiment of just those extremes of 
mysterious and intransigent Otherness which culture confronts with 
worship or fear, love or loathing. As "Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, 



20 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

witch, and sprite," she mediates between the male artist and the 
Unknown, simultaneously teaching him purity and instructing him 
in degradation. But what of her own artistic growth? Because that 
growth has for so long been radically qualified by the angel- and 
monster-imagery the literary woman sees in the looking glass of the 
male-authored text, some understanding of such imagery is an 
essential preliminary to any study of literature by women. As Joan 
Didion recently noted, "writing is an aggression" precisely because 
it is "an imposition ... an invasion of someone else's most private 
space." 42 Like Leo Bersani's observation that an "elasticity of being 
[is] induced by an immersion in literature," her remark has special 
significance in this connection. A thorough study of those male con- 
structs which have invaded the "most private space" of countless 
literate women would require hundreds of pages — indeed, a number 
of excellent books have been devoted to the subject 48 — but we will 
attempt here a brief review of the fundamental extremes of angel 
and monster, in order to demonstrate the severity of the male text's 
"imposition" upon women. 



The ideal woman that male authors dream of generating is always 
an angel, as Norman O. Brown's comment about Laura/poetry 
suggested. At the same time, from Virginia WoolPs point of view, 
the "angel in the house" is the most pernicious image male authors 
have ever imposed upon literary women. Where and how did this 
ambiguous image originate, particularly the trivialized Victorian 
angel in the house that so disturbed Woolf ? In the Middle Ages, of 
course, mankind's great teacher of purity was the Virgin Mary, a 
mother goddess who perfectly fitted the female role Ortner defines 
as "merciful dispenser of salvation." For the more secular nineteenth 
century, however, the eternal type of female purity was represented 
not by a madonna in heaven but by an angel in the house. Never- 
theless, there is a clear line of literary descent from divine Virgin to 
domestic angel, passing through (among many others) Dante, Milton, 
and Goethe. 

Like most Renaissance neo-Platonists, Dante claimed to know God 
and His Virgin handmaid by knowing the Virgin's virgin attendant, 



The Qtuen's Looking Glass 21 

Beatrice. Similarly, Milton, despite his undeniable misogyny (which 
we shall examine later), speaks of having been granted a vision of 
"my late espoused saint," who 

Came vested all in white, pure as her mind. 

Her face was veiled, yet to my fancied sight, 
Love sweetness goodness, in her person shined 

So clear, as in no face with more delight. 

In death, in other words, Milton's human wife has taken on both the 
celestial brightness of Mary and (since she has been "washed from 
spot of childbed taint") the virginal purity of Beatrice. In fact, if 
she could be resurrected in the flesh she might now be an angel in the 
house, interpreting heaven's luminous mysteries to her wondering 
husband. 

The famous vision of the "Eternal Feminine" (Das Ewig-Weibliche) 
with which Goethe's Faust concludes presents women from penitent 
prostitutes to angelic virgins in just this role of interpreters or inter- 
mediaries between the divine Father and his human sons. The 
German of Faust's "Chorus Mysticus" is extraordinarily difficult to 
translate in verse, but Hans Eichner's English paraphrase easily 
suggests the ways in which Goethe's image of female intercessors 
seems almost to be a revision of Milton's "late espoused saint" : "All 
that is transitory is merely symbolical; here (that is to say, in the 
scene before you) the inaccessible is (symbolically) portrayed and 
the inexpressible is (symbolically) made manifest. The eternal femi- 
nine (i.e. the eternal principle symbolized by woman) draws us to 
higher spheres." Meditating on the exact nature of this eternal 
feminine, moreover, Eichner comments that for Goethe the "ideal 
of contemplative purity" is always feminine while "the ideal of 
significant action is masculine." 44 Once again, therefore, it is just 
because women are defined as wholly passive, completely void of 
generative power (like "Cyphers") that they become numinous to 
male artists. For in the metaphysical emptiness their "purity" signifies 
they are, of course, self -less, with all the moral and psychological 
implications that word suggests. 

Elaborating further on Goethe's eternal feminine, Eichner gives 
an example of the culmination of Goethe's "chain of representatives 



22 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

of the 'noblest femininity'": Makarie, in the late novel Wilhelm 
Meister's Travels. His description of her usefully summarizes the 
philosophical background of the angel in the house : 

She . . . leads a life of almost pure contemplation. ... in con- 
siderable isolation on a country estate ... a life without external 
events — a life whose story cannot be told as there is no story. 
Her existence is not useless. On the contrary . . . she shines like a 
beacon in a dark world, like a motionless lighthouse by which 
others, the travellers whose lives do have a story, can set their 
course. When those involved in feeling and action turn to her 
in their need, they are never dismissed without advice and 
consolation. She is an ideal, a model of selflessness and of purity 
of heart.** 

She has no story of her own but gives "advice and consolation" to others, 
listens, smiles, sympathizes: such characteristics show that Makarie 
is not only the descendent of Western culture's cloistered virgins but 
also the direct ancestress of Coventry Patmore's angel in the house, 
the eponymous heroine of what may have been the middle nineteenth 
century's most popular book of poems. 

Dedicated to "the memory of her by whom and for whom I became 
a poet," Patmore's The Angel in the House is a verse-sequence which 
hymns the praises and narrates the courtship and marriage of 
Honoria, one of the three daughters of a country Dean, a girl whose 
unselfish grace, gendeness, simplicity, and nobility reveal that she is 
not only a pattern Victorian lady but almost literally an angel on 
earth. Certainly her spirituality interprets the divine for her poet- 
husband, so that 

No happier post than this I ask, 

To live her laureate all my life. 
On wings of love uplifted free, 

And by her gentleness made great, 
I'll teach how noble man should be 

To match with such a lovely mate.* 8 

Honoria's essendal virtue, in other words, is that her virtue makes her 
man "great." In and of herself, she is neither great nor extraordinary. 
Indeed, Patmore adduces many details to stress the almost pathetic 



The Queen's Looking Glass 23 

ordinariness of her life: she picks violets, loses her gloves, feeds her 
birds, waters her rose plot, and journeys to London on a train with her 
father the Dean, carrying in her lap a volume of Petrarch borrowed 
from her lover but entirely ignorant that the book is, as he tells us, 
"worth its weight in gold." In short, like Goethe's Makarie, Honoria 
has no story except a sort of anti-story of selfless innocence based on 
the notion that "Man must be pleased; but him to please / Is woman's 
pleasure." 4 ' 

Significantly, when the young poet-lover first visits the Deanery 
where his Honoria awaits him like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, 
one of her sisters asks him if, since leaving Cambridge, he has "out- 
grown" Kant and Goethe. But if his paean of praise to the Ewig- 
Weibliche in rural England suggests that he has not, at any rate, 
outgrown the latter of these, that is because for Victorian men of 
letters Goethe represented not collegiate immaturity but moral 
maturity. After all, the climactic words of Sartor Resartus, that most 
influential masterpiece of Victorian sagacity, were "Close thy Byron; 
open thy Goethe" 4 * and though Carlyle was not specifically thinking 
of what came to be called "the woman question," his canonization 
of Goethe meant, among other things, a new emphasis on the eternal 
feminine, the angel woman Patmore describes in his verses, Aurora 
Leigh perceives in her mother's picture, and Virginia Woolf shudders 
to remember. 

Of course, from the eighteenth century on, conduct books for ladies 
had proliferated, enjoining young girls to submissiveness, modesty, 
self-lessness; reminding all women that they should be angelic. There 
is a long and crowded road from The Booke of Curtesye (1477) to the 
columns of "Dear Abby," but social historians have fully explored 
its part in the creation of those "eternal feminine" virtues of modesty, 
gracefulness, purity, delicacy, civility, compliancy, reticence, 
chastity, affability, politeness — all of which are modes of man- 
nerliness that contributed to Honoria's angelic innocence. Ladies 
were assured by the writers of such conduct books that "There are 
Rules for all our Actions, even down to Sleeping with a good Grace," 
and they were told that this good Grace was a woman's duty to her 
husband because "if Woman owes her Being to the Comfort and 
Profit of man, 'tis highly reasonable that she should be careful and 
diligent to content and please him." 49 



24 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

The arts of pleasing men, in other words, are not only angelic 
characteristics; in more worldly terms, they are the proper acts of a 
lady. "What shall I do to gratify myself or to be admired?" is not 
the question a lady asks on arising, declared Mrs. Sarah Ellis, Vic- 
torian England's foremost preceptress of female morals and manners, 
in 1844. No, because she is "the least engaged of any member of the 
household," a woman of right feeling should devote herself to the 
good of others. 50 And she should do this silendy, without calling 
attention to her exertions because "all that would tend to draw away 
her thoughts from others and fix them on herself, ought to be avoided 
as an evil to her." 41 Similarly, John Ruskin affirmed in 1865 that 
the woman's "power is not for rule, not for battle, and her intellect 
is not for invention or creation, but for sweet orderings" of domes- 
ticity.** Plainly, both writers meant that, enshrined within her home, 
a Victorian angel-woman should become her husband's holy refuge 
from the blood and sweat that inevitably accompanies a "life of 
significant action," as well as, in her "contemplative purity," a living 
memento of the otherness of the divine. 

At times, however, in the severity of her selflessness, as well as in 
the extremity of her alienation from ordinary fleshly life, this nine- 
teenth-century angel-woman becomes not just a memento of otherness 
but actually a memento mori or, as Alexander Welsh has noted, an 
"Angel of Death." Discussing Dickens's heroines in particular and 
what he calls Victorian "angelology" in general, Welsh analyzes 
the ways in which a spiritualized heroine like Florence Dombey 
"assists in the translation of the dying to a future state," not only 
by officiating at the sickbed but also by maternally welcoming the 
sufferer "from the other side of death." ss But if the angel-woman in 
some curious way simultaneously inhabits both this world and the 
next, then there is a sense in which, besides ministering to the dying, 
she is herself already dead. Welsh muses on "the apparent revers- 
ibility of the heroine's role, whereby the acts of dying and of saving 
someone from death seem confused," and he points out that Dickens 
actually describes Florence Dombey as having the unearthly serenity 
of one who is dead. 44 A spiritual messenger, an interpreter of mysteries 
to wondering and devoted men, the Ewig-Weiblicfu angel becomes, 
finally, a messenger of the mystical otherness of death. 

As Ann Douglas has recently shown, the nineteenth-century cult 



The Queen's Looking Glass 25 

of such death-angels as Harriet Beecher Stowe's little Eva or Dickens's 
little Nell resulted in a veritable "domestication of death," producing 
both a conventionalized iconography and a stylized hagiography of 
dying women and children.** Like Dickens's dead-alive Florence 
Dombey, for instance, Louisa May Alcott's dying Beth March is a 
household saint, and the deathbed at which she surrenders herself 
to heaven is the ultimate shrine of the angel-woman's mysteries. At 
the same time, moreover, the aesthetic cult of ladylike fragility and 
delicate beauty — no doubt associated with the moral cult of the 
angel-woman — obliged "genteel" women to "kill" themselves (as 
Lederer observed) into art objects: slim, pale, passive beings whose 
"charms" eerily recalled the snowy, porcelain immobility of the 
dead. Tight-lacing, fasting, vinegar-drinking, and similar cosmetic 
or dietary excesses were all parts of a physical regimen that helped 
women either to feign morbid weakness or actually to "decline" 
into real illness. Beth March's beautiful ladylike sister Amy is thus, 
in her artful way, as pale and frail as her consumptive sibling, and 
together these two heroines constitute complementary halves of the 
emblematic "beautiful woman" whose death, thought Edgar Allan 
Poe, "is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world."* 8 

Whether she becomes an objet d'art or a saint, however, it is the 
surrender of her self — of her personal comfort, her personal desires, 
or both — that is the beautiful angel-woman's key act, while it is 
precisely this sacrifice which dooms her both to death and to heaven. 
For to be selfless is not only to be noble, it is to be dead. A life that 
has no story, like the life of Goethe's Makarie, is really a life of death, 
a death-in-life. The ideal of "contemplative purity" evokes, finally, 
both heaven and the grave. To return to Aurora Leigh's catalogue, 
then — her vision of "Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite" 
in her mother's portrait — there is a sense in which as a celestial 
"angel" Aurora's mother is also a somewhat sinister "ghost," because 
she wears the face of the spiritualized Victorian woman who, having 
died to her own desires, her own self, her own life, leads a posthumous 
existence in her own lifetime. 

As Douglas reminds us too, though, the Victorian domestication 
of death represents not just an acquiescence in death by the selfless, 
but also a secret striving for power by the powerless. "The tombstone," 
she notes, "is the sacred emblem in the cult of the overlooked."* 7 



26 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

Exorcised from public life, denied the pleasures (though not the 
pains) of sensual existence, the Victorian angel in the house was 
allowed to hold sway over at least one realm beyond her own house- 
hold: the kingdom of the dead. But if, as nurse and comforter, 
spirit-guide and mystical messenger, a woman ruled the dying and 
the dead, might not even her admirers sometimes fear that, besides 
dying or easing death, she could bring death? As Welsh puts it, "the 
power of an angel to save implies, even while it denies, the power of 
death." Speaking of angelic Agnes Wickfield (in David Copperfield), 
he adds a sinister but witty question: "Who, in the language of 
detective fiction, was the last person to see Dora Copperfield alive?"** 

Neither Welsh nor Dickens does more than hint at the angel- 
woman's pernicious potential. But in this context a word to the wise 
is enough, for such a hint helps explain the fluid metamorphoses that 
the figure of Aurora's mother undergoes. Her images of "Ghost, 
fiend, and angel, fairy, witch and sprite," we begin to see, are inex- 
tricably linked, one to another, each to its opposite. Certainly, 
imprisoned in the coffinlike shape of a death angel, a woman might 
long demonically for escape. In addition, if as death angel the woman 
suggests a providentially selfless mother, delivering the male soul 
from one realm to another, the same woman's maternal power implies, 
too, the fearful bondage of mortality into which every mother delivers 
her children. Finally, the fact that the angel woman manipulates 
her domestic/mystical sphere in order to ensure the well-being of 
those entrusted to her care reveals that she can manipulate ; she can 
scheme ; she can plot — stories as well as strategies. 

The Victorian angel's scheming, her mortal fleshliness, and her 
repressed (but therefore all the more frightening) capacity for explo- 
sive rage are often subtly acknowledged, even in the most glowing 
texts of male "angelographers." Patmore's Honoria, for instance, 
proves to be considerably more duplicitous than at first she seemed. 
"To the sweet folly of the dove," her poet-lover admits, "She joins 
the cunning of the snake." To be sure, the speaker shows that her 
wiliness is exercised in a "good" cause: "to rivet and exalt his love." 
Nevertheless, 

Her mode of candour is deceit ; 

And what she thinks from what she'll say 



The Queen's Looking Glass 27 

(Although I'll never call her cheat) 
Lies far as Scotland from Cathay. *• 

Clearly, the poet is here acknowledging his beloved's potential for 
what Austen's Captain Harville called "inconstancy" — that is, her 
stubborn autonomy and unknowable subjectivity, meaning the 
ineradicable selfishness that underlies even her angelic renunciation 
of self. 

Similarly, exploring analogous tensions between flesh and spirit 
in yet another version of the angel-woman, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 
places his "Blessed Damozel" behind "golden barriers" in heaven, 
but then observes that she is still humanly embodied. The bars she 
leans on are oddly warm ; her voice, her hair, her tears are weirdly 
real and sensual, perhaps to emphasize the impossibility of complete 
spirituality for any woman. This "damozel's" life-in-death, at any 
rate, is still in some sense physical and therefore (paradoxically) 
emblematic of mortality. But though Rossetti wrote "The Blessed 
Damozel" in 1846, sixteen years before the suicide of his wife and 
model Elizabeth Siddal, the secret anxieties such imagery expressed 
came to the surface long after Lizzie's death. In 1869, to retrieve a 
poetry manuscript he had sentimentally buried with this beloved 
woman whose face "fill[ed] his dreams" — buried as if woman and 
artwork were necessarily inseparable — Rossetti had Lizzie's coffin 
exhumed, and literary London buzzed with rumors that her hair 
had "continued to grow after her death, to grow so long, so beautiful, 
so luxuriandy as to fill the coffin with its gold!" 80 As if symbolizing 
the indomitable earthliness that no woman, however angelic, could 
entirely renounce, Lizzie Siddal Rossetti's hair leaps like a metaphor 
for monstrous female sexual energies from the literal and figurative 
coffins in which her artist-husband enclosed her. To Rossetd, its 
assertive radiance made the dead Lizzie seem both terrifyingly 
physical and fiercely supernatural. "'Mid change the changeless 
night environeth, / Lies all that golden hair undimmed in death," 
he wrote. 81 



If we define a woman like Rossetti's dead wife as indomitably 
earthly yet somehow supernatural, we are defining her as a witch or 



28 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

monster, a magical creature of the lower world who is a kind of 
antithetical mirror image of an angel. As such, she still stands, in 
Sherry Ortner's words, "both under and over (but really simply 
outside of) the sphere of culture's hegemony." But now, as a repre- 
sentative of otherness, she incarnates the damning otherness of the 
flesh rather than the inspiring otherness of the spirit, expressing 
what — to use Anne Finch's words — men consider her own "pre- 
sumptuous" desires rather than the angelic humility and "dullness" 
for which she was designed. Indeed, if we return to the literary 
definitions of "authority" with which we began this discussion, we 
will see that the monster-woman, threatening to replace her angelic 
sister, embodies intransigent female autonomy and thus represents 
both the author's power to allay "his" anxieties by calling their 
source bad names (witch, bitch, fiend, monster) and, simultaneously, 
the mysterious power of the character who refuses to stay in her 
textually ordained "place" and thus generates a story that "gets 
away" from its author. 

Because, as Dorothy Dinnerstein has proposed, male anxieties 
about female autonomy probably go as deep as everyone's mother- 
dominated infancy, patriarchal texts have traditionally suggested 
that every angelically selfless Snow White must be hunted, if not 
haunted, by a wickedly assertive Stepmother: for every glowing 
portrait of submissive women enshrined in domesticity, there exists 
an equally important negative image that embodies the sacrilegious 
fiendishness of what William Blake called the "Female Will." Thus, 
while male writers traditionally praise the simplicity of the dove, 
they invariably castigate the cunning of the serpent — at least when 
that cunning is exercised in her own behalf. Similarly, assertiveness, 
aggressiveness — all characteristics of a male life of "significant 
action" — are "monstrous" in women precisely because "unfeminine" 
and therefore unsuited to a gentle life of "contemplative purity." 
Musing on "The Daughter of Eve," Patmore's poet-speaker remarks, 
significantly, that 

The woman's gentle mood o'erstept 

Withers my love, that lighdy scans 
The rest, and does in her accept 

All her own faults, but none of man's. 8 * 



The Queen's Looking Glass 29 

Luckily, his Honoria has no such vicious defects; her serpentine 
cunning, as we noted earlier, is concentrated entirely on pleasing 
her lover. But repeatedly, throughout most male literature, a sweet 
heroine inside the house (like Honoria) is opposed to a vicious bitch 
outside. 

Behind Thackeray's angelically submissive Amelia Sedley, for 
instance — an Honoria whose career is traced in gloomier detail than 
that of Patmore's angel — lurks Vanity Fair's stubbornly autonomous 
Becky Sharp, an independent "charmer" whom the novelist at one 
point actually describes as a monstrous and snaky sorceress : 

In describing this siren, singing and smiling, coaxing and cajol- 
ing, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all around, 
has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the 
monster's hideous tail above water? No! Those who like may 
peep down under waves that are pretty transparent, and see it 
writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping 
amongst bones, or curling around corpses; but above the water 
line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and 
decorous. . . . * 3 

As this extraordinary passage suggests, the monster may not only 
be concealed behind the angel, she may actually turn out to reside 
within (or in the lower half of) the angel. Thus, Thackeray implies, 
every angel in the house — "proper, agreeable, and decorous," 
"coaxing and cajoling" hapless men — is really, perhaps, a monster, 
"diabolically hideous and slimy." 

"A woman in the shape of a monster," Adrienne Rich observes 
in "Planetarium," "a monster in the shape of a woman / the skies 
are full of them." 64 Because the skies are full of them, even if we focus 
only on those female monsters who are direcdy related to Thackeray's 
serpentine siren, we will find that such monsters have long inhabited 
male texts. Emblems of filthy materiality, committed only to their 
own private ends, these women are accidents of nature, deformities 
meant to repel, but in their very freakishness they possess unhealthy 
energies, powerful and dangerous arts. Moreover, to the extent that 
they incarnate male dread of women and, specifically, male scorn 
of female creativity, such characters have drastically affected the 



30 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

self-images of women writers, negatively reinforcing those messages 
of submissiveness conveyed by their angelic sisters. 

The first book of Spenser's The Faerie Queene introduces a female 
monster who serves as a prototype of the entire line. Errour is half 
woman, half serpent, "Most lothsom, filthic, foule, and full of vile 
disdaine" (1.1.126). She breeds in a dark den where her young 
suck on her poisonous dugs or creep back into her mouth at the sight 
of hated light, and in battle against the noble Red-crosse Knight, 
she spews out a flood of books and papers, frogs and toads. Symbol- 
izing the dangerous effect of misdirected and undigested learning, 
her filthiness adumbrates that of two other powerful females in book 1 , 
Duessa and Lucifera. But because these other women can create 
false appearances to hide their vile natures, they are even more 
dangerous. 

Like Errour, Duessa is deformed below the waist, as if to foreshadow 
Lear's "But to the girdle do the Gods inherit, Beneath is all the fiend's." 
When, like all witches, she must do penance at the time of the new 
moon by bathing with herbs traditionally used by such other witches 
as Scylla, Circe, and Medea, her "neather parts" are revealed as 
"misshapen, monstruous." 86 But significandy, Duessa deceives and 
ensnares men by assuming the shape of Una, the beautiful and angelic 
heroine who represents Christianity, charity, docility. Similarly, 
Lucifera lives in what seems to be a lovely mansion, a cunningly 
constructed House of Pride whose weak foundation and ruinous rear 
quarters are carefully concealed. Both women use their arts of decep- 
tion to entrap and destroy men, and the secret, shameful ugliness of 
both is closely associated with their hidden genitals — that is, with 
their femaleness. 

Descending from Patristic misogynists like Tertullian and St. 
Augustine through Renaissance and Restoration literature — through 
Sidney's Cecropia, Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth and his Goneril and 
Regan, Milton's Sin (and even, as we shall see, his Eve) — the female 
monster populates the works of the satirists of the eighteenth century, 
a company of male artists whose virulent visions must have been 
particularly alarming to feminine readers in an age when women 
had just begun to "attempt the pen." These authors attacked literary 
women on two fronts. First, and most obviously, through the con- 
struction of cartoon figures like Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop and 



The Queen's Looking Glass 31 

Fielding's Mrs. Slipslop, and Smollett's Tabitha Bramble, they 
implied that language itself was almost literally alien to the female 
tongue. In the mouths of women, vocabulary loses meaning, sentences 
dissolve, literary messages are distorted or destroyed. At the same 
time, more subtly but perhaps for that reason even more significantly, 
such authors devised elaborate anti-romances to show that the female 
"angel" was really a female "fiend," the ladylike paragon really an 
unladylike monster. Thus while the "Bluestocking" Anne Finch 
would find herself directly caricatured (as she was by Pope and Gay) 
as a character afflicted with the "poetical Itch" like Phoebe Clinket 
in Three Hours After Marriage,** she might well feel herself to be 
indirectly but even more profoundly attacked by Johnson's famous 
observation that a woman preacher was like a dog standing on its 
hind legs, or by the suggestion — embedded in works by Swift, Pope, 
Gay, and others — that all women were inexorably and inescapably 
monstrous, in the flesh as well as in the spirit. Finally, in a comment 
like Horace Walpole's remark that Mary Wollstonecraft was "a 
hyena in petticoats," the two kinds of misogynistic attacks definitively 
merged. 67 

It is significant, then, that Jonathan Swift's disgust with the mon- 
strous females who populate so many of his verses seems to have been 
caused specifically by the inexorable failure of female art. Like 
disgusted Gulliver, who returns to England only to prefer the stable 
to the parlor, his horses to his wife, Swift projects his horror of time, 
his dread of physicality, on to another stinking creature — the de- 
generate woman. Probably the most famous instance of this projection 
occurs in his so-called dirty poems. In these works, we peer behind 
the facade of the angel woman to discover that, say, the idealized 
"Caelia, Caelia, Caelia, shits!" We discover that the seemingly 
unblemished Chloe must "either void or burst," and that the female 
"inner space" of the "Queen of Love" is like a foul chamber pot. 68 
Though some critics have suggested that the misogyny implied by 
Swift's characterizations of these women is merely ironic, what 
emerges from his most furious poems in this vein is a horror of female 
flesh and a revulsion at the inability — the powerlessness — of female 
arts to redeem or to transform the flesh. Thus for Swift female sexuality 
is consistently equated with degeneration, disease, and death, while 
female arts are trivial attempts to forestall an inevitable end. 



32 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

Significantly, as if defining the tradition of duplicity in which 
even Patmore's uxorious speaker placed his heroine, Swift devotes 
many poems to an examination of the role deception plays in the 
creation of a saving but inadequate fiction of femininity. In "A 
Beautiful Young Nymph," a battered prostitute removes her wig, 
her crystal eye, her teeth, and her padding at bedtime, so that the 
next morning she must employ all her "Arts" to reconstruct her 
"scatter'd Parts."*' Such as they are, however, her arts only con- 
tribute to her own suffering or that of others, and the same thing 
is true of Diana in "The Progress of Beauty," who awakes as a 
mingled mass of dirt and sweat, with cracked lips, foul teeth, and 
gummy eyes, to spend four hours artfully reconstructing herself. 
Because she is inexorably rotting away, however, Swift declares that 
eventually all forms will fail, for "Art no longer can prevayl / When 
the Materialls all are gone." 70 The strategies of Chloe, Caelia, 
Corinna, and Diana — artists manqu6 all — have no success, Swift 
shows, except in temporarily staving off dissolution, for like Pope's 
"S- A of Queens," Swift's females are composed of what Pope called 
"Matter too soft," and their arts are thus always inadequate. 71 

No wonder, then, that the Augustan satirist attacks the female 
scribbler so virulently, reinforcing Anne Finch's doleful sense that 
for a woman to attempt the pen is monstrous and "presumptuous," 
for she is "to be dull / Expected and dessigned." At least in part 
reflecting male artists' anxieties about the adequacy of their own 
arts, female writers are maligned as failures in eighteenth-century 
satire precisely because they cannot transcend their female bodily 
limitations: they cannot conceive of themselves in any but reproductive 
terms. Poor Phoebe Clinket, for instance, is both a caricature of 
Finch herself and a prototype of the female dunce who proves that 
literary creativity in women is merely the result of sexual frustration. 
Lovingly nurturing the unworthy "issue" of her muse because it 
attests to the "Fertility and Readiness" of her imagination, Phoebe 
is as sensual and indiscriminate in her poetic strainings as Lady 
Townley is in her insatiable erotic longings. 74 Like mothers of ille- 
gitimate or misshapen offspring, female writers are not producing 
what they ought, the satirists declare, so that a loose lady novelist 
is, appropriately enough, the first prize in The Dunciad's urinary 
contest, while a chamberpot is awarded to the runner-up. 



The Qjteen's Looking Glass 33 

For the most part, eighteenth-century satirists limited their 
depiction of the female monster to low mimetic equivalents like 
Phoebe Clinket or Swift's corroding coquettes. But there were several 
important avatars of the monster woman who retained the allegorical 
anatomy of their more fantastic precursors. In The Battle of the Boohs, 
for instance, Swift's "Goddess Criticism" clearly symbolizes the 
demise of wit and learning. Devouring numberless volumes in a den 
as dark as Errour's, she is surrounded by relatives like Ignorance, 
Pride, Opinion, Noise, Impudence, and Pedantry, and she herself 
is as allegorically deformed as any of Spenser's females. 

The Goddess herself had claws like a Cat; her Head, and Ears, 
and Voice, resembled those of an Ass; Her Teeth fallen out 
before; Her Eyes turned inward, as if she lookt only upon 
Herself; Her diet was the overflowing of her own Gall: Her 
Spleen was so large, as to stand prominent like a Dug of the 
first Rate, nor wanted Excrescencies in forms of Teats, at which 
a Crew of ugly Monsters were greedily sucking; and what is 
wonderful to conceive, the bulk of Spleen increased faster than 
the Sucking could diminish it.' 3 

Like Spenser's Errour and Milton's Sin, Criticism is linked by her 
processes of eternal breeding, eating, spewing, feeding, and rede- 
vouring to biological cycles all three poets view as destructive to 
transcendent, intellectual life. More, since all the creations of each 
monstrous mother are her excretions, and since all her excretions 
are both her food and her weaponry, each mother forms with her 
brood a self-enclosed system, cannibalistic and solipsistic : the creativ- 
ity of the world made flesh is annihilating. At the same time, Swift's 
spleen-producing and splenetic Goddess cannot be far removed from 
the Goddess of Spleen in Pope's The Rape of the Lock, and — because 
she is a mother Goddess — she also has much in common with the 
Goddess of Dullness who appears in Pope's Dunciad. The parent of 
"Vapours and Female Wit," the "Hysteric or Poetic fit," the Queen 
of Spleen rules over all women between the ages of fifteen and fifty, 
and thus, as a sort of patroness of the female sexual cycle, she is 
associated with the same anti-creation that characterizes Errour, 
Sin, and Criticism. 74 Similarly, the Goddess of Dullness, a nursing 
mother worshipped by a society of dunces, symbolizes the failure of 



34 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

culture, the failure of art, and the death of the satirist. The huge 
daughter of Chaos and Night, she rocks the laureate in her ample lap 
while handing out rewards and intoxicating drinks to her dull sons. 
A Queen of Ooze, whose inertia comments on idealized Queens of 
Love, she nods and all of Nature falls asleep, its light destroyed by 
the stupor that spreads throughout the land in the milk of her 
"kindness."'* 

In all these incarnations — from Errour to Dullness, from Goneril 
and Regan to Chloe and Caelia — the female monster is a striking 
illustration of Simone de Beauvoir's thesis that woman has been 
made to represent all of man's ambivalent feelings about his own 
inability to control his own physical existence, his own birth and 
death. As the Other, woman comes to represent the contingency of 
life, life that is made to be destroyed. "It is the horror of his own 
carnal contingence," de Beauvoir notes, "which [man] projects 
upon [woman]." 7 ' In addition, as Karen Horney and Dorothy 
Dinnerstein have shown, male dread of women, and specifically the 
infantile dread of maternal autonomy, has historically objectified 
itself in vilification of women, while male ambivalence about female 
"charms" underlies the traditional images of such terrible sorceress- 
goddesses as the Sphinx, Medusa, Circe, Kali, Delilah, and Salome, 
all of whom possess duplicitous arts that allow them both to seduce 
and to steal male generative energy." 

The sexual nausea associated with all these monster women helps 
explain why so many real women have for so long expressed loathing 
of (or at least anxiety about) their own, inexorably female bodies. 
The "killing" of oneself into an art object — the pruning and preening, 
the mirror madness, and concern with odors and aging, with hair 
which is invariably too curly or too lank, with bodies too thin or 
too thick — all this testifies to the efforts women have expended not 
just trying to be angels but trying not to become female monsters. 
More significantly for our purposes, however, the female freak is 
and has been a powerfully coercive and monitory image for women 
secretly desiring to attempt the pen, an image that helped enforce 
the injunctions to silence implicit also in the concept of the Ewig- 
Weiblicke. If becoming an author meant mistaking one's "sex and way," 
if it meant becoming an "unsexed" or perversely sexed female, then 
it meant becoming a monster or freak, a vile Errour, a grotesque 



The Queen's Looking Glass 35 

Lady Macbeth, a disgusting goddess of Dullness, or (to name a few 
later witches) a murderous Lamia, a sinister Geraldine. Perhaps, then, 
the "presumptuous" effort should not be made at all. Certainly the 
story of Lilith, one more monster woman — indeed, according to 
Hebrew mythology, both the first woman and the first monster — 
specifically connects poetic presumption with madness, freakishness, 
monstrosity. 

Created not from Adam's rib but, like him, from the dust, Lilith 
was Adam's first wife, according to apocryphal Jewish lore. Because 
she considered herself his equal, she objected to lying beneath him, 
so that when he tried to force her submission, she became enraged 
and, speaking the Ineffable Name, flew away to the edge of the Red 
Sea to reside with demons. Threatened by God's angelic emissaries, 
told that she must return or daily lose a hundred of her demon children 
to death, Lilith preferred punishment to patriarchal marriage, and 
she took her revenge against both God and Adam by injuring babies — 
especially male babies, who were traditionally thought to be more 
vulnerable to her attacks. What her history suggests is that in patri- 
archal culture, female speech and female "presumption" — that is, 
angry revolt against male domination — are inextricably linked and 
inevitably daemonic. Excluded from the human community, even 
from the semidivine communal chronicles of the Bible, the figure 
of Lilith represents the price women have been told they must pay 
for attempting to define themselves. And it is a terrible price : cursed 
both because she is a character who "got away" and because she 
dared to usurp the essentially literary authority implied by the act 
of naming, Lilith is locked into a vengeance (child-killing) which 
can only bring her more suffering (the killing of her own children). 
And even the nature of her one-woman revolution emphasizes her 
helplessness and her isolation, for her protest takes the form of a 
refusal and a departure, a flight of escape rather than an active 
rebellion like, say, Satan's. As a paradigm of both the "witch" and 
the "fiend" of Aurora Leigh's "Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch 
and sprite," Lilith reveals, then, just how difficult it is for women 
even to attempt the pen. And from George MacDonald, the Victorian 
fantasist who portrayed her in his astonishing Lilith as a paradigm 
of the self-tormenting assertive woman, to Laura Riding, who 
depicted her in "Eve's Side of It" as an archetypal woman Creator, 



36 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

the problem Lilith represents has been associated with the problems 
of female authorship and female authority. 78 Even if they had not 
studied her legend, literary women like Anne Finch, bemoaning the 
double bind in which the mutually dependent images of angel and 
monster had left them, must have gotten the message Lilith incar- 
nates: a life of feminine submission, of "contemplative purity," is a 
life of silence, a life that has no pen and no story, while a life of 
female rebellion, of "significant action," is a life that must be silenced, 
a life whose monstrous pen tells a terrible story. Either way, the 
images on the surface of the looking glass, into which the female 
artist peers in search of her self, warn her that she is or must be a 
"Cypher," framed and framed up, indited and indicted. 

As the legend of Lilith shows, and as psychoanalysts from Freud 
and Jung onward have observed, myths and fairy tales often both 
state and enforce culture's sentences with greater accuracy than more 
sophisticated literary texts. If Lilith's story summarizes the genesis 
of the female monster in a single useful parable, the Grimm tale of 
"Litde Snow White" dramatizes the essential but equivocal rela- 
tionship between the angel-woman and the monster-woman, a 
relationship that is also implicit in Aurora Leigh's bewildered specu- 
lations about her dead mother. "Little Snow White," which Walt 
Disney entitled "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," should really 
be called Snow White and Her Wicked Stepmother, for the central 
action of the tale — indeed, its only real action — arises from the 
relationship between these two women: the one fair, young, pale, 
the other just as fair, but older, fiercer ; the one a daughter, the 
other a mother; the one sweet, ignorant, passive, the other both 
artful and active; the one a sort of angel, the other an undeniable 
witch. 

Significantly, the conflict between these two women is fought out 
largely in the transparent enclosures into which, like all the other 
images of women we have been discussing here, both have been 
locked: a magic looking glass, an enchanted and enchanting glass 
coffin. Here, wielding as weapons the tools patriarchy suggests that 
women use to kill themselves into art, the two women literally try 
to kill each other with art. Shadow fights shadow, image destroys 



The Queen's Looking Glass 37 

image in the crystal prison, as if the "fiend" of Aurora's mother's 
portrait should plot to destroy the "angel" who is another one of 
her selves. 

The story begins in midwinter, with a Queen sitting and sewing, 
framed by a window. As in so many fairy tales, she pricks her finger, 
bleeds, and is thereby assumed into the cycle of sexuality William 
Blake called the realm of "generation," giving birth "soon after" 
to a daughter "as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the 
wood of the window frame." 79 All the motifs introduced in this 
prefatory first paragraph — sewing, snow, blood, enclosure — are asso- 
ciated with key themes in female lives (hence in female writing), and 
they are thus themes we shall be studying throughout this book. 
But for our purposes here the tale's opening is merely prefatory. 
The real story begins when the Queen, having become a mother, 
metamorphoses also into a witch — that is, into a wicked "step" 
mother: "... when the child was born, the Queen died," and "After 
a year had passed the King took to himself another wife." 

When we first encounter this "new" wife, she is framed in a magic 
looking glass, just as her predecessor — that is, her earlier self — had 
been framed in a window. To be caught and trapped in a mirror 
rather than a window, however, is to be driven inward, obsessively 
studying self-images as if seeking a viable self. The first Queen seems 
still to have had prospects; not yet fallen into sexuality, she looked 
outward, if only upon the snow. The second Queen is doomed to the 
inward search that psychoanalysts like Bruno Bettelheim censoriously 
define as "narcissism," 80 but which (as Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's 
"The Other Side of the Mirror" suggested) is necessitated by a state 
from which all outward prospects have been removed. 

That outward prospects have been removed — or lost or dissolved 
away — is suggested not only by the Queen's mirror obsession but 
by the absence of the King from the story as it is related in the Grimm 
version. The Queen's husband and Snow White's father (for whose 
attentions, according to Bettelheim, the two women are battling in 
a feminized Oedipal struggle) never actually appears in this story 
at all, a fact that emphasizes the almost stifling intensity with which 
the tale concentrates on the conflict in the mirror between mother 
and daughter, woman and woman, self and self. At the same dme, 
though, there is clearly at least one way in which the King is present. 



38 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

His, surely, is the voice of the looking glass, the patriarchal voice of 
judgment that rules the Queen's — and every woman's — self-evalua- 
tion. He it is who decides, first, that his consort is "the fairest of all," 
and then, as she becomes maddened, rebellious, witchlike, that she 
must be replaced by his angelically innocent and dutiful daughter, 
a girl who is therefore defined as "more beautiful still" than the 
Queen. To the extent, then, that the King, and only the King, 
constituted the first Queen's prospects, he need no longer appear 
in the story because, having assimilated the meaning of her own 
sexuality (and having, thus, become the second Queen) the woman 
has internalized the King's rules : his voice resides now in her own 
mirror, her own mind. 

But if Snow White is "really" the daughter of the second as well 
as of the first Queen (i.e., if the two Queens are identical), why does 
the Queen hate her so much? The traditional explanation — that 
the mother is as threatened by her daughter's "budding sexuality" 
as the daughter is by the mother's "possession" of the father — is 
helpful but does not seem entirely adequate, considering the depth 
and ferocity of the Queen's rage. It is true, of course, that in the 
patriarchal Kingdom of the text these women inhabit the Queen's 
life can be literally imperiled by her daughter's beauty, and true 
(as we shall see throughout this study) that, given the female vulner- 
ability such perils imply, female bonding is extraordinarily difficult 
in patriarchy : women almost inevitably turn against women because 
the voice of the looking glass sets them against each other. But, 
beyond all this, it seems as if there is a sense in which the intense 
desperation with which the Queen enacts her rituals of self-absorption 
causes (or is caused by) her hatred of Snow White. Innocent, passive, 
and self-lessly free of the mirror madness that consumes the Queen, 
Snow White represents the ideal of renunciation that the Queen 
has already renounced at the beginning of the story. Thus Snow 
White is destined to replace the Queen because the Queen hates her, 
rather than vice versa. The Queen's hatred of Snow White, in other 
words, exists before the looking glass has provided an obvious reason 
for hatred. 

For the Queen, as we come to see more clearly in the course of the 
story, is a plotter, a plot-maker, a schemer, a witch, an artist, an 
impersonator, a woman of almost infinite creative energy, witty, 



The Queen's Looking Glass 39 

wily, and self-absorbed as all artists traditionally are. On the other 
hand, in her absolute chastity, her frozen innocence, her sweet nullity, 
Snow White represents precisely the ideal of "contemplative purity" 
we have already discussed, an ideal that could quite literally kill 
the Queen. An angel in the house of myth, Snow White is not only a 
child but (as female angels always are) childlike, docile, submissive, 
the heroine of a life that has no story. But the Queen, adult and demonic, 
plainly wants a life of "significant action," by definition an "unfemi- 
nine" life of stories and story-telling. And therefore, to the extent 
that Snow White, as her daughter, is a part of herself, she wants 
to kill the Snow White in herself, the angel who would keep deeds and 
dramas out of her own house. 

The first death plot the Queen invents is a naively straight- 
forward murder story: she commands one of her huntsmen to kill 
Snow White. But, as Bruno Bettelheim has shown, the huntsman is 
really a surrogate for the King, a parental — or, more specifically, 
patriarchal — figure "who dominates, controls, and subdues wild 
ferocious beasts" and who thus "represents the subjugation of the 
animal, asocial, violent tendencies in man."* 1 In a sense, then, the 
Queen has foolishly asked her patriarchal master to act for her in 
doing the subversive deed she wants to do in part to retain power 
over him and in part to steal his power from him. Obviously, he will 
not do this. As patriarchy's angelic daughter, Snow White is, after 
all, his child, and he must save her, not kill her. Hence he kills a 
wild boar in her stead, and brings its lung and liver to the Queen 
as proof that he has murdered the child. Thinking that she is devour- 
ing her ice-pure enemy, therefore, the Queen consumes, instead, the 
wild boar's organs; that is, symbolically speaking, she devours her 
own beastly rage, and becomes (of course) even more enraged. 

When she learns that her first plot has failed, then, the Queen's 
story-telling becomes angrier as well as more inventive, more sophisti- 
cated, more subversive. Significandy, each of the three "tales" she 
tells — that is, each of the three plots she invents — depends on a 
poisonous or parodic use of a distinctively female device as a murder 
weapon, and in each case she reinforces the sardonic commentary 
on "femininity" that such weaponry makes by impersonating a 
"wise" woman, a "good" mother, or, as Ellen Moers would put 
it, an "educating heroine." 8 * As a "kind" old pedlar woman, she 



40 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

offers to lace Snow White "properly" for once — then suffocates her 
with a very Victorian set of tight laces. As another wise old expert 
in female beauty, she promises to comb Snow White's hair "properly," 
then assaults her with a poisonous comb. Finally, as a wholesome 
farmer's wife, she gives Snow White a "very poisonous apple," which 
she has made in "a quite secret, lonely room, where no one ever 
came." The girl finally falls, killed, so it seems, by the female arts of 
cosmetology and cookery. Paradoxically, however, even though the 
Queen has been using such feminine wiles as the sirens' comb and 
Eve's apple subversively, to destroy angelic Snow White so that she 
(the Queen) can assert and aggrandize herself, these arts have had 
o i her daughter an opposite effect from those she intended. Strength- 
ening the chaste maiden in her passivity, they have made her into 
precisely the eternally beautiful, inanimate objet d'art patriarchal 
aesthetics want a girl to be. From the point of view of the mad, 
self-assertive Queen, conventional female arts kill. But from the point 
of view of the docile and selfless princess, such arts, even while they 
kill, confer the only measure of power available to a woman in a 
patriarchal culture. 

Certainly when the kindly huntsman-father saved her life by 
abandoning her in the forest at the edge of his kingdom, Snow White 
discovered her own powerlessness. Though she had been allowed to 
live because she was a "good" girl, she had to find her own devious 
way of resisting the onslaughts of the maddened Queen, both inside 
and outside her self. In this connection, the seven dwarves probably 
represent her own dwarfed powers, her stunted selfhood, for, as 
Bettelheim points out, they can do little to help save the girl from the 
Queen. At the same time, however, her life with them is an important 
part of her education in submissive femininity, for in serving them 
she learns essential lessons of service, of selflessness, of domesticity. 
Finally, that at this point Snow White is a housekeeping angel in a 
liny house conveys the story's attitude toward "woman's world and 
woman's work" : the realm of domesticity is a miniaturized kingdom 
in which the best of women is not only like a dwarf but like a dwarf's 
servant. 

Does the irony and bitterness consequent upon such a perception 
lead to Snow White's few small acts of disobedience? Or would 
Snow White ultimately have rebelled anyway, precisely because she 



The Queen's Looking Glass 41 

is the Queen's true daughter? The story does not, of course, answer 
such questions, but it does seem to imply them, since its turning 
point comes from Snow White's significant willingness to be tempted 
by the Queen's "gifts," despite the dwarves' admonitions. Indeed, 
the only hint of self-interest that Snow White displays throughout 
the whole story comes in her "narcissistic" desire for the stay-laces, 
the comb, and the apple that the disguised murderess offers. As 
Bettelheim remarks, this "suggests how close the stepmother's temp- 
tations are to Snow White's inner desires." 83 Indeed, it suggests 
that, as we have already noted, the Queen and Snow White are in 
some sense one : while the Queen struggles to free herself from the 
passive Snow White in herself, Snow White must struggle to repress 
the assertive Queen in herself. That both women eat from the same 
deadly apple in the third temptation episode merely clarifies and 
dramatizes this point. The Queen's lonely art has enabled her to 
contrive a two-faced fruit — one white and one red "cheek" — that 
represents her ambiguous relationship to this angelic girl who is 
both her daughter and her enemy, her self and her opposite. Her 
intention is that the girl will die of the apple's poisoned red half — red 
with her sexual energy, her assertive desire for deeds of blood and 
triumph — while she herself will be unharmed by the passivity of 
the white half. 

But though at first this seems to have happened, the apple's effect 
is, finally, of course, quite different. After the Queen's artfulness 
has killed Snow White into art, the girl becomes if anything even 
more dangerous to her "step" mother's autonomy than she was 
before, because even more opposed to it in both mind and body. 
For, dead and self-less in her glass coffin, she is an object, to be dis- 
played and desired, patriarchy's marble "opus," the decorative and 
decorous Galatea with whom every ruler would like to grace his 
parlor. Thus, when the Prince first sees Snow White in her coffin, 
he begs the dwarves to give "it" to him as a gift, "for I cannot live 
without seeing Snow White. I will honor and prize her as my dearest 
possession". An "it," a possession, Snow White has become an 
idealized image of herself, a woman in a portrait like Aurora Leigh's 
mother, and as such she has definitively proven herself to be patri- 
archy's ideal woman, the perfect candidate for Queen. At this point, 
therefore, she regurgitates the poison apple (whose madness had 



42 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

stuck in her throat) and rises from her coffin. The fairest in the land, 
she will marry the most powerful in the land ; bidden to their wedding, 
the egotistically assertive, plotting Queen will become a former 
Queen, dancing herself to death in red-hot iron shoes. 

What does the future hold for Snow White, however? When her 
Prince becomes a King and she becomes a Queen, what will her 
life be like? Trained to domesticity by her dwarf instructors, will 
she sit in the window, gazing out on the wild forest of her past, and 
sigh, and sew, and prick her finger, and conceive a child white as 
snow, red as blood, black as ebony wood? Surely, fairest of them all, 
Snow White has exchanged one glass coffin for another, delivered 
from the prison where the Queen put her only to be imprisoned in the 
looking glass from which the King's voice speaks daily. There is, 
after all, no female model for her in this tale except the "good" 
(dead) mother and her living avatar the "bad" mother. And if Snow 
White escaped her first glass coffin by her goodness, her passivity and 
docility, her only escape from her second glass coffin, the imprisoning 
mirror, must evidently be through "badness," through plots and 
stories, duplicitous schemes, wild dreams, fierce fictions, mad imper- 
sonations. The cycle of her fate seems inexorable. Renouncing 
"contemplative purity," she must now embark on that life of "signi- 
ficant action" which, for a woman, is defined as a witch's life because 
it is so monstrous, so unnatural. Grotesque as Errour, Duessa, 
Lucifera, she will practice false arts in her secret, lonely room. Suicidal 
as Lilith and Medea, she will become a murderess bent on the self- 
slaughter implicit in her murderous attempts against the life of her 
own child. Finally, in fiery shoes that parody the costumes of femini- 
nity as surely as the comb and stays she herself contrived, she will 
do a silent terrible death-dance out of the story, the looking glass, 
the transparent coffin of her own image. Her only deed, this death 
will imply, can be a deed of death, her only action the pernicious 
action of self-destruction. 

In this connection, it seems especially significant that the Queen's 
dance of death is a silent one. In "The Juniper Tree," a version of 
"Little Snow White" in which a boy's mother tries to kill him (for 
different reasons, of course) the dead boy is transformed not into 
a silent art object but into a furious golden bird who sings a song of 
vengeance against his murderess and finally crushes her to death 



The Qyeetu's Looking Glass 43 

with a millstone. 84 The male child's progress toward adulthood is 
a growth toward both self-assertion and self-articulation, "The 
Juniper Tree" implies, a development of the powers of speech. But 
the girl child must learn the arts of silence either as herself a silent 
image invented and defined by the magic looking glass of the male- 
authored text, or as a silent dancer of her own woes, a dancer who 
enacts rather than articulates. From the abused Procne to the reclusive 
Lady of Shallott, therefore, women have been told that their art, 
like the witch's dance in "Little Snow White," is an art of silence. 
Procne must record her sufferings with what Geoffrey Hartman calls 
"the voice of the shuttle" because when she was raped her tongue 
was cut out. 86 The Lady of Shallott must weave her story because 
she is imprisoned in a tower as adamantine as any glass coffin, doomed 
to escape only through the self-annihilating madness of romantic 
love (just as the Queen is doomed to escape only through the self- 
annihilating madness of her death dance), and her last work of art 
is her own dead body floating downstream in a boat. And even 
when such maddened or grotesque female artists make sounds, they 
are for the most part, say patriarchal theorists, absurd or grotesque 
or pitiful. Procne's sister Philomel, for instance, speaks with an 
unintelligible bird's voice (unlike the voice of the hero of "The 
Juniper Tree"). And when Gerard Manley Hopkins, with whom 
we began this meditation on pens and penises and kings and queens, 
wrote of her in an epigram "On a Poetess," he wrote as follows: 

Miss M. 's a nightingale. 'Tis well 

Your simile I keep. 
It is the way with Philomel 

To sing while others sleep." 

Even Matthew Arnold's more sympathetically conceived Philomel 
speaks "a wild, unquenched, deep-sunken, old-world pain" that 
arises from the stirrings of a "bewildered brain."*' 

Yet, as Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's yearning toward that sane 
and serious self concealed on the other side of the mirror suggested 
— and as Anne Finch's complaint and Anne Elliot's protest told us 
too — women writers, longing to attempt the pen, have longed to 
escape from the many-faceted glass coffins of the patriarchal texts 
whose properties male authors insisted that they are. Reaching a 



44 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

hand to the stern, self-determining self behind the looking-glass 
portrait of her mother, reaching past those grotesque and obstructive 
images of "Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite," Aurora 
Leigh, like all the women artists whose careers we will trace in this 
book, tries to excavate the real self buried beneath the "copy" selves. 
Similarly, Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, staring into a mirror where 
her own mouth appears as a "hideous wound" bleeding "in silence 
and in secret," strives for a "voice to speak her dread." 

In their attempts at the escape that the female pen offers from the 
prison of the male text, women like Aurora Leigh and Mary Elizabeth 
Coleridge begin, as we shall see, by alternately defining themselves 
as angel-women or as monster-women. Like Snow White and the 
wicked Queen, their earliest impulses, as we shall also see, are ambi- 
valent. Either they are inclined to immobilize themselves with 
suffocating tight-laces in the glass coffins of patriarchy, or they are 
tempted to destroy themselves by doing fiery and suicidal tarantellas 
out of the looking glass. Yet, despite the obstacles presented by those 
twin images of angel and monster, despite the fears of sterility and 
the anxieties of authorship from which women have suffered, genera- 
tions of texts have been possible for female writers. By the end of 
the eighteenth century — and here is the most important phenomenon 
we will see throughout this volume — women were not only writing, 
they were conceiving fictional worlds in which patriarchal images 
and conventions were severely, radically revised. And as self-conceiv- 
ing women from Anne Finch and Anne Elliot to Emily Bronte and 
Emily Dickinson rose from the glass coffin of the male-authored text, 
as they exploded out of the Queen's looking glass, the old silent 
dance of death became a dance of triumph, a dance into speech, 
a dance of authority. 



rtS» 




Infection in the Sentence : 

The Woman Writer and the Anxiety 

of Authorship 



The man who does not know sick women does not know women. 

— S. Weir Mitchell 

I try to describe this long limitation, hoping that with such power 
as is now mine, and such use of language as is within that power, 
this will convince any one who cares about it that this "living" of 
mine had been done under a heavy handicap. . . . 

— Charlotte Perkins Gilman 

A Word dropped careless on a Page 
May stimulate an eye 
When folded in perpetual seam 
The Wrinkled Maker lie 

Infection in the sentence breeds 
We may inhale Despair 
At distances of Centuries 
From the Malaria— 

— Emily Dickinson 

I stand in the ring 

in the dead city 

and tie on the red shoes 

They are not mine, 
they are my mother's, 
her mother's before, 
handed down like an heirloom 
but hidden like shameful letters. 
— Anne Sexton 



What does it mean to be a woman writer in a culture whose funda- 
mental definitions of literary authority are, as we have seen, both 

45 



46 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

overtly and covertly patriarchal ? If the vexed and vexing polarities 
of angel and monster, sweet dumb Snow White and fierce mad Queen, 
are major images literary tradition offers women, how does such 
imagery influence the ways in which women attempt the pen? If 
the Queen's looking glass speaks with the King's voice, how do its 
perpetual kingly admonitions affect the Queen's own voice? Since 
his is the chief voice she hears, does the Queen try to sound like the 
King, imitating his tone, his inflections, his phrasing, his point of 
view? Or does she "talk back" to him in her own vocabulary, her 
own timbre, insisting on her own viewpoint? We believe these are 
basic questions feminist literary criticism — both theoretical and 
practical — must answer, and consequently they are questions to 
which we shall turn again and again, not only in this chapter but in 
all our readings of nineteenth-century literature by women. 

That writers assimilate and then consciously or unconsciously 
affirm or deny the achievements of their predecessors is, of course, a 
central fact of literary history, a fact whose aesthetic and metaphysical 
implications have been discussed in detail by theorists as diverse 
as T. S. Eliot, M. H. Abrams, Erich Auerbach, and Frank Kermode. 1 
More recently, some literary theorists have begun to explore what we 
might call the psychology of literary history — the tensions and anx- 
ieties, hostilities and inadequacies writers feel when they confront 
not only the achievements of their predecessors but the traditions of 
genre, style, and metaphor that they inherit from such "forefathers." 
Increasingly, these critics study the ways in which, as J. Hillis Miller 
has put it, a literary text "is inhabited ... by a long chain of parasitical 
presences, echoes, allusions, guests, ghosts of previous texts." 2 

As Miller himself also notes, the first and foremost student of such 
literary psychohistory has been Harold Bloom. Applying Freudian 
structures to literary genealogies, Bloom has postulated that the 
dynamics of literary history arise- from the artist's "anxiety of in- 
fluence," his fear that he is not his own creator and that the works of 
his predecessors, existing before and beyond him, assume essential 
priority over his own writings. In fact, as we pointed out in our 
discussion of the metaphor of literary paternity, Bloom's paradigm 
of the sequential historical relationship between literary artists is 
the relationship of father and son, specifically that relationship as it 



Infection in the Sentence 47 

was defined by Freud. Thus Bloom explains that a "strong poet" 
must engage in heroic warfare with his "precursor," for, involved as 
he is in a literary Oedipal struggle, a man can only become a poet 
by somehow invalidating his poetic father. 

Bloom's model of literary history is intensely (even exclusively) 
male, and necessarily patriarchal. For this reason it has seemed, and 
no doubt will continue to seem, offensively sexist to some feminist 
critics. Not only, after all, does Bloom describe literary history as the 
crucial warfare of fathers and sons, he sees Milton's fiercely masculine 
fallen Satan as the type of the poet in our culture, and he metaphori- 
cally defines the poetic process as a sexual encounter between a male 
poet and his female muse. Where, then, does the female poet fit in? 
Does she want to annihilate a "forefather" or a "fbremother" ? What 
if she can find no models, no precursors? Does she have a muse, and 
what is its sex? Such questions are inevitable in any female considera- 
tion of Bloomian poetics. 3 And yet, from a feminist perspective, their 
inevitability may be just the point; it may, that is, call our attention 
not to what is wrong about Bloom's conceptualization of the dynamics 
of Western literary history, but to what is right (or at least suggestive) 
about his theory. 

For Western literary history is overwhelmingly male — or, more 
accurately, patriarchal — and Bloom analyzes and explains this fact, 
while other theorists have ignored it, precisely, one supposes, because 
they assumed literature had to be male. Like Freud, whose psycho- 
analytic postulates permeate Bloom's literary psychoanalyses of the 
"anxiety of influence," Bloom has defined processes of interaction 
that his predecessors did not bother to consider because, among other 
reasons, they were themselves so caught up in such processes. Like 
Freud, too, Bloom has insisted on bringing to consciousness assump- 
tions readers and writers do not ordinarily examine. In doing so, 
he has clarified the implications of the psychosexual and sociosexual 
con-texts by which every literary text is surrounded, and thus the 
meanings of the "guests" and "ghosts" which inhabit texts themselves. 
Speaking of Freud, the feminist theorist Juliet Mitchell has remarked 
that "psychoanalysis is not a recommendation for a patriarchal 
society, but an analysis of one." 4 The same sort of statement could 
be made about Bloom's model of literary history, which is not a 



48 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

recommendation for but an analysis of the patriarchal poetics (and 
attendant anxieties) which underlie our culture's chief literary 
movements. 

For our purposes here, however, Bloom's historical construct is 
useful not only because it helps identify and define the patriarchal 
psychosexual context in which so much Western literature was 
authored, but also because it can help us distinguish the anxieties 
and achievements of female writers from those of male writers. If 
we return to the question we asked earlier — where does a woman 
writer "fit in" to the overwhelmingly and essentially male literary 
history Bloom describes? — we find we have to answer that a woman 
writer does not "fit in." At first glance, indeed, she seems to be 
anomalous, indefinable, alienated, a freakish outsider. Just as in 
Freud's theories of male and female psychosexual development there 
is no symmetry between a boy's growth and a girl's (with, say. the 
male "Oedipus complex" balanced by a female "Electra complex") 
so Bloom's male-oriented theory of the "anxiety of influence" cannot 
be simply reversed or inverted in order to account for the situation 
of the woman writer. 

Certainly if we acquiesce in the patriarchal Bloomian model, we 
can be sure that the female poet does not experience the "anxiety 
of influence" in the same way that her male counterpart would, for 
the simple reason that she must confront precursors who are almost 
exclusively male, and therefore significantly different from her. Not 
only do these precursors incarnate patriarchal authority (as our 
discussion of the metaphor of literary paternity argued), they attempt 
to enclose her in definitions of her person and her potential which, 
by reducing her to extreme stereotypes (angel, monster) drastically 
conflict with her own sense of her self — that is, of her subjectivity, 
her autonomy, her creativity. On the one hand, therefore, the woman 
writer's male precursors symbolize authority; on the other hand, 
despite their authority, they fail to define the ways in which she 
experiences her own identity as a writer. More, the masculine 
authority with which they construct their literary personae, as well 
as the fierce power struggles in which they engage in their efforts of 
self-creation, seem to the woman writer direcdy to contradict the 
terms of her own gender definition. Thus the "anxiety of influence" 
that a male poet experiences is felt by a female poet as an even more 



Infection in the Sentence 49 

primary "anxiety of authorship" — a radical fear that she cannot 
create, that because she can never become a "precursor" the act of 
writing will isolate or destroy her. 

This anxiety is, of course, exacerbated by her fear that not only 
can she not fight a male precursor on "his" terms and win, she cannot 
"beget" art upon the (female) body of the muse. As Juliet Mitchell 
notes, in a concise summary of the implications Freud's theory of 
psychosexual development has for women, both a boy and a girl, 
"as they learn to speak and live within society, want to take the father's 
[in Bloom's terminology the precursor's] place, and only the boy will 
one day be allowed to do so. Furthermore both sexes are born into the 
desire of the mother, and as, through cultural heritage, what the 
mother desires is the phallus-turned-baby, both children desire to be 
the phallus for the mother. Again, only the boy can fully recognize himself 
in his mother's desire. Thus both sexes repudiate the implications of 
femininity," but the girl learns (in relation to her father) "that her 
subjugation to the law of the father entails her becoming the repre- 
sentative of 'nature' and 'sexuality,' a chaos of spontaneous, intuitive 
creativity." 5 

Unlike her male counterpart, then, the female artist must first 
struggle against the effects of a socialization which makes conflict 
with the will of her (male) precursors seem inexpressibly absurd, 
futile, or even — as in the case of the Queen in "Little Snow White" — 
self-annihilating. And just as the male artist's struggle against his 
precursor takes the form of what Bloom calls revisionary swerves, 
flights, misreadings, so the female writer's battle for self-creation 
involves her in a revisionary process. Her battle, however, is not 
against her (male) precursor's reading of the world but against his 
reading of her. In order to define herself as an author she must redefine 
the terms of her socialization. Her revisionary struggle, therefore, 
often becomes a struggle for what Adrienne Rich has called "Re- 
vision — the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering 
an old text from a new critical direction ... an act of survival."* 
Frequently, moreover, she can begin such a struggle only by actively 
seeking a female precursor who, far from representing a threatening 
force to be denied or killed, proves by example that a revolt against 
patriarchal literary authority is possible. 

For this reason, as well as for the sound psychoanalytic reasons 



— ^ardaFemm - 



oettcs 



Mitchell and others give, it would be foolish to locF \ artist 

j struct 11 ri* 
into an Electra pattern matching the Oedipaf , Bloom 

c i • tu •* -and we sk „ 

proposes for male writers. The woman writer— ■ r >all see 

women doing this over and over again — searches r * model 

not because she wants dutifully to comply with f^ ''ions of 

rficr own rf*L 
her "femininity" but because she must legitimize r .bilious 

endeavors. At the same time, like most women in j/ *ociety, 

the woman writer does experience her gender as r P Wade, 

or even a debilitating inadequacy ; like most patriar^ . ^ '''tioned 

women, in other words, she is victimized by what r ^Is "the 

inferiorized and 'alternative' (second sex) psycholo^r , *'> under 

patriarchy." 7 Thus the loneliness of the female ar^ ' *'ings of 

alienation from male predecessors coupled with h^ »isterly 

precursors and successors, her urgent sense of her female 

audience together with her fear of the antagonist .Naders, 

her culturally conditioned timidity about self-d' . ^n, her 

dread of the patriarchal authority of art, her / nxie ^ „. 'ut the 

impropriety of female invention — all these phenol . 'leriori- 

zation" mark the woman writer's struggle for aw " *'inition 

and differentiate her efforts at self-creation from *f male 

counterpart. 

As we shall see, such sociosexual diflerentiatk/ . . . ^at, as 

Elaine Showalter has suggested, women writers par 7 " * quite 

different literary subculture from that inhabited t" . f 'ters, a 

subculture which has its own distinctive literary ' ' *ven — 

though it defines itself in relation to the "main," " 'nated, 

literary culture — a distinctive history. 8 At best, tf P ''hess of 

this female subculture has been exhilarating for **[ , "' ? recent 

years, for instance, while male writers seem increa^ ° ' "tve felt 

exhausted by the need for revisionism which Blcx? * .of the 

"anxiety of influence" accurately describes, wor \ have 

. , . . . . • . *e that thcL 

seen themselves as pioneers in a creativity so intend . <r male 

counterparts have probably not experienced its ° ^ce the 

_ . r , ■ , „ The son of 

Renaissance, or at least since the Romantic era. ... many 

fathers, today's male writer feels hopelessly belated ' . ^hter of 

too few mothers, today's female writer feels that . hing to 

create a viable tradition which is at last definitivel/ ° &• 

There is a darker side of this female literary sub cu urc ' ^Wever, 



Infection in the Sentence 51 

especially when women's struggles for literary self-creation are seen in 
the psychosexual context described by Bloom's Freudian theories of 
patrilineal literary inheritance. As we noted above, for an "anxiety of 
influence" the woman writer substitutes what we have called an 
"anxiety of authorship," an anxiety built from complex and often 
only barely conscious fears of that authority which seems to the female 
artist to be by definition inappropriate to her sex. Because it is based 
on the woman's socially determined sense of her own biology, this 
anxiety of authorship is quite distinct from the anxiety about creativity 
that could be traced in such male writers as Hawthorne or Dostoevsky. 
Indeed, to the extent that it forms one of the unique bonds that link 
women in what we might call the secret sisterhood of their literary 
subculture, such anxiety in itself constitutes a crucial mark of that 
subculture. 

In comparison to the "male" tradition of strong, father-son combat, 
however, this female anxiety of authorship is profoundly debilitating. 
Handed down not from one woman to another but from the stern 
literary "fathers" of patriarchy to all their "inferiorized" female 
descendants, it is in many ways the germ of a dis-ease or, at any rate, 
a disaffection, a disturbance, a distrust, that spreads like a stain 
throughout the style and structure of much literature by women, 
especially — as we shall see in this study — throughout literature by 
women before the twentieth century. For if contemporary women do 
now attempt the pen with energy and authority, they are able to do 
so only because their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century foremothers 
struggled in isoladon that felt like illness, alienation that felt like 
madness, obscurity that felt like paralysis to overcome the anxiety 
of authorship that was endemic to their literary subculture. Thus, 
while the recent feminist emphasis on positive role models has 
undoubtedly helped many women, it should not keep us from realizing 
the terrible odds against which a creative female subculture was 
established. Far from reinforcing socially oppressive sexual stereo- 
typing, only a full consideration of such problems can reveal the 
extraordinary strength of women's literary accomplishments in the 
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Emily Dickinson's acute observations about "infection in the 
sentence," quoted in our epigraphs, resonate in a number of different 
ways, then, for women writers, given the literary woman's special 



52 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

concept of her place in literary psychohistory. To begin with, the 
words seem to indicate Dickinson's keen consciousness that, in the 
purest Bloomian or Millerian sense, pernicious "guests" and "ghosts" 
inhabit all literary texts. For any reader, but especially for a reader 
who is also a writer, every text can become a "sentence" or weapon 
in a kind of metaphorical germ warfare. Beyond this, however, the 
fact that "infection in the sentence breeds" suggests Dickinson's recog- 
nition that literary texts are coercive, imprisoning, fever-inducing; 
that, since literature usurps a reader's interiority, it is an invasion 
of privacy. Moreover, given Dickinson's own gender definition, the 
sexual ambiguity of her poem's "Wrinkled Maker" is significant. For 
while, on the one hand, "we" (meaning especially women writers) 
"may inhale Despair" from all those patriarchal texts which seek to 
deny female autonomy and authority, on the other hand "we" 
(meaning especially women writers) "may inhale Despair" from all 
those "foremothers" who have both overtly and covertly conveyed 
their traditional authorship anxiety to their bewildered female de- 
scendants. Finally, such traditional, metaphorically matrilineal anx- 
iety ensures that even the maker of a text, when she is a woman, may 
feel imprisoned within texts — folded and "wrinkled" by their pages 
and thus trapped in their "perpetual seam[s]" which perpetually 
tell her how she seems. 

Although contemporary women writers are relatively free of the 
infection of this "Despair" Dickinson defines (at least in comparison 
to their nineteenth-century precursors), an anecdote recently related 
by the American poet and essayist Annie Gottlieb summarizes our 
point about the ways in which, for all women, "Infection in the sen- 
tence breeds" : 

When I began to enjoy my powers as a writer, 1 dreamt that my 
mother had me sterilized ! (Even in dreams we still blame our 
mothers for the punitive choices our culture forces on us.) I 
went after the mother-figure in my dream, brandishing a large 
knife; on its blade was writing. I cried, "Do you know what you 
are doing? You are destroying my femaleness, my female power, 
which is important to me because ofyouV 9 

Seeking motherly precursors, says Gottlieb, as if echoing Dickinson, 
the woman writer may find only infection, debilitation. Yet still she 



Infection in the Sentence 53 

must seek, not seek to subvert, her "female power, which is important" 
to her because of her lost literary matriiineage. In this connection, 
Dickinson's own words about mothers are revealing, for she alter- 
nately claimed that "I never had a mother," that "I always ran 
Home to Awe as a child. ... He was an awful Mother but I liked him 
better than none," and that "a mother [was] a miracle." 10 Yet, as 
we shall see, her own anxiety of authorship was a "Despair" inhaled 
not only from the infections suffered by her own ailing physical 
mother, and her many tormented literary mothers, but from the 
literary fathers who spoke to her — even "lied" to her — sometimes 
near at hand, sometimes "at distances of Centuries," from the cen- 
sorious looking glasses of literary texts. 



It is debilitating to be any woman in a society where women are 
warned that if they do not behave like angels they must be monsters. 
Recendy, in fact, social scientists and social historians like Jessie 
Bernard, Phyllis Chesler, Naomi Weisstein, and Pauline Bart have 
begun to study the ways in which patriarchal socialization literally 
makes women sick, both physically and mentally. 11 Hysteria, the 
disease with which Freud so famously began his investigations into 
the dynamic connections between psyche and soma, is by definition a 
"female disease," not so much because it takes its name from the 
Greek word for womb, hyster (the organ which was in the nineteenth 
century supposed to "cause" this emotional disturbance), but because 
hysteria did occur mainly among women in turn-of-the-century 
Vienna, and because throughout the nineteenth century this mental 
illness, like many other nervous disorders, was thought to be caused 
by the female reproductive system, as if to elaborate upon Aristotle's 
nodon that femaleness was in and of itself a deformity . ta And, indeed, 
such diseases of maladjustment to the physical and social environment 
as anorexia and agoraphobia did and do strike a disproportionate 
number of women. Sufferers from anorexia — loss of appetite, self- 
starvadon — are primarily adolescent girls. Sufferers from agora- 
phobia — fear of open or "public" places — are usually female, most 
frequendy middle-aged housewives, as are sufferers from crippling 
rheumatoid arthritis. 13 

Such diseases are caused by patriarchal socialization in several 



54 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

ways. Most obviously, of course, any young girl, but especially a lively 
or imaginative one, is likely to experience her education in docility, 
submissiveness, self-lessness as in some sense sickening. To be trained 
in renunciation is almost necessarily to be trained to ill health, since 
the human animal's first and strongest urge is to his/her own survival, 
pleasure, assertion. In addition, each of the "subjects" in which a 
young girl is educated may be sickening in a specific way. Learning 
to become a beautiful object, the girl learns anxiety about — perhaps 
even loathing of — her own flesh. Peering obsessively into the real as 
well as metaphoric looking glasses that surround her, she desires 
literally to "reduce" her own body. In the nineteenth century, as 
we noted earlier, this desire to be beautiful and "frail" led to tight- 
lacing and vinegar-drinking. In our own era it has spawned in- 
numerable diets and "controlled" fasts, as well as the extraordinary 
phenomenon of teenage anorexia. 14 Similarly, it seems inevitable 
that women reared for, and conditioned to, lives of privacy, reticence, 
domesticity, might develop pathological fears of public places and 
unconfined spaces. Like the comb, stay-laces, and apple which the 
Queen in "Little Snow White" uses as weapons against her hated 
stepdaughter, such afflictions as anorexia and agoraphobia simply 
carry patriarchal definitions of "femininity" to absurd extremes, and 
thus function as essential or at least inescapable parodies of social 
prescriptions. 

In the nineteenth century, however, the complex of social prescrip- 
tions these diseases parody did not merely urge women to act in ways 
which would cause them to become ill; nineteenth-century culture 
seems to have actually admonished women to be ill. In other words, 
the "female diseases" from which Victorian women suffered were 
not always byproducts of their training in femininity; they were the 
goals of such training. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English 
have shown, throughout much of the nineteenth century "Upper- 
and upper-middle-class women were [defined as] 'sick' [frail, ill]; 
working-class women were [defined as] 'sickening' [infectious, dis- 
eased]." Speaking of the "lady," they go on to point out that "Society 
agreed that she was frail and sickly," and consequently a "cult of 
female invalidism" developed in England and America. For the 
products of such a cult, it was, as Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi wrote 



Inflation in the Sentence 55 

in 1895, "considered natural and almost laudable to break down 
under all conceivable varieties of strain — a winter dissipation, a 
houseful of servants, a quarrel with a female friend, not to speak of 
more legitimate reasons. . . . Constandy considering their nerves, 
urged to consider them by well-intentioned but short-sighted ad- 
visors, [women] pretty soon become nothing but a bundle of 
nerves." I8 

Given this socially conditioned epidemic of female illness, it is not 
surprising to find that the angel in the house of literature frequently 
suffered not just from fear and trembling but from literal and 
figurative sicknesses unto death. Although her hyperactive stepmother 
dances herself into the grave, after all, beautiful Snow White has 
just barely recovered from a catatonic trance in her glass coffin. 
And if we return to Goethe's Makarie, the "good" woman of Wilhelm 
Meister's Travels whom Hans Eichner has described as incarnadng 
her author's ideal of "contempladve purity," we find that this 
"model of selflessness and of purity of heart . . . this embodiment of 
das Ewig-Weibliche, suffers from migraine headaches." 16 Implying 
ruthless self-suppression, does the "eternal feminine" necessarily 
imply illness? If so, we may have found yet another meaning for 
Dickinson's assertion that "Infection in the sentence breeds." The 
despair we "inhale" even "at distances of centuries" may be the 
despair of a life like Makarie's, a life that "has no story." 

At the same time, however, the despair of the monster-woman is 
also real, undeniable, and infectious. The Queen's mad tarantella 
is plainly unhealthy and metaphorically the result of too much 
storytelling. As the Romantic poets feared, too much imagination 
may be dangerous to anyone, male or female, but for women in 
particular patriarchal culture has always assumed mental exercises 
would have dire consequences. In 1645 John Winthrop, the governor 
of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, noted in his journal that Anne 
Hopkins "has fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding 
and reason, which had been growing upon her divers years, by 
occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and 
had written many books," adding that "if she had attended her 
household affairs, and such things as belong to women . . . she had 
kept her wits." 17 And as Wendy Martin has noted 



56 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

in the nineteenth century this fear of the intellectual woman 
became so intense that the phenomenon . . . was recorded in 
medical annals. A thinking woman was considered such a 
breach of nature that a Harvard doctor reported during his 
autopsy on a Radcliffe graduate he discovered that her uterus 
had shrivelled to the size of a pea. 1 * 

If, then, as Anne Sexton suggests (in a poem parts of which we 
have also used here as an epigraph), the red shoes passed furtively 
down from woman to woman are the shoes of art, the Queen's 
dancing shoes, it is as sickening to be a Queen who wears them as 
it is to be an angelic Makarie who repudiates them. Several passages 
in Sexton's verse express what we have defined as "anxiety of author- 
ship" in the form of a feverish dread of the suicidal tarantella of 
female creativity: 

All those girls 

who wore red shoes, 

each boarded a train that would not stop. 



They tore off their ears like safety pins. 

Their arms fell off them and became hats. 

Their heads rolled off and sang down the street. 

And their feet — oh God, their feet in the market place — 

. . . the feet went on. 

The feet could not stop. 



They could not listen. 

They could not stop. 

What they did was the death dance. 

What they did would do them in. 

Certainly infection breeds in these sentences, and despair: female 
art, Sexton suggests, has .a "hidden" but crucial tradition of un- 
controllable madness. Perhaps it was her semi-conscious perception 
of this tradition that gave Sexton herself "a secret fear" of being "a 
reincarnation" of Edna Millay, whose reputation seemed based on 
romance. In a letter to DeWitt Snodgrass she confessed that she had 
"a fear of writing as a woman writes," adding, "I wish I were a man 



Infection in the Sentence 57 

— I would rather write the way a man writes." l * After all, dancing 
the death dance, "all those girb / who wore the red shoes" dismantle 
their own bodies, like anorexics renouncing the guilty weight of 
their female flesh. But if their arms, ears, and heads fall off, perhaps 
their wombs, too, will "shrivel" to "the size of a pea" ? 

In this connection, a passage from Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle 
acts almost as a gloss on the conflict between creativity and "femi- 
ninity" which Sexton's violent imagery embodies (or dis-embodies). 
Significantly, the protagonist of Atwood's novel is a writer of the 
sort of fiction that has recently been called "female gothic," and 
even more significantly she too projects her anxieties of authorship 
into the fairy-tale metaphor of the red shoes. Stepping in glass, she 
sees blood on her feet, and suddenly feels that she has discovered 

The real red shoes, the feet punished for dancing. You could 
dance, or you could have the love of a good man. But you were 
afraid to dance, because you had this unnatural fear that if 
you danced they'd cut your feet off so you wouldn't be able 
to dance. . . . Finally you overcame your fear and danced, and 
they cut your feet off. The good man went away too, because 
you wanted to dance. 20 

Whether she is a passive angel or an active monster, in other words, 
the woman writer feels herself to be literally or figuratively crippled 
by the debilitating alternatives her culture offers her, and the 
crippling effects of her conditioning sometimes seem to "breed" like 
sentences of death in the bloody shoes she inherits from her literary 
foremothers. 

Surrounded as she is by images of disease, traditions of disease, and 
invitations both to disease and to dis-ease, it is no wonder that the 
woman writer has held many mirrors up to the discomforts of her 
own nature. As we shall see, the notion that "Infection in the sentence 
breeds" has been so central a truth for literary women that the 
great artistic achievements of nineteenth-century novelists and poets ■ 
from Austen and Shelley to Dickinson and Barrett Browning are 
often both literally and figuratively concerned with disease, as if to 
emphasize the effort with which health and wholeness were won from 
the infectious "vapors" of despair and fragmentation. Rejecting 
the poisoned apples her culture offers her, the woman writer often 



58 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

becomes in some sense ■ anorexic, resolutely closing her mouth on 
silence (since — in the words of Jane Austen's Henry Tilney — "a 
woman's only power is the power of refusal" 21 ), even while she 
complains of starvation. Thus both Charlotte and Emily Bronte 
depict the travails of starved or starving anorexic heroines, while 
Emily Dickinson declares in one breath that she "had been hungry, 
all the Years," and in another opts for "Sumptuous Destitution." 
Similarly, Christina Rossetd represents her own anxiety of authorship 
in the split between one heroine who longs to "suck and suck" on 
goblin fruit and another who locks her lips fiercely together in a 
gesture of silent and passionate renunciation. In addition, many of 
these literary women become in one way or another agoraphobic. 
Trained to redcence, they fear the vertiginous openness of the 
literary marketplace and rationalize with Emily Dickinson that 
"Publication — is the Auction /Of the Mind of Man" or, worse, 
punningly confess that "Creation seemed a mighty Crack — /To 
make me visible."** 

As we shall also see, other diseases and dis-eases accompany the 
two classic symptoms of anorexia and agoraphobia. Claustrophobia, 
for instance, agoraphobia's parallel and complementary opposite, 
is a disturbance we shall encounter again and again in women's 
writing throughout the nineteenth century. Eye "troubles," more- 
over, seem to abound in the lives and works of literary women, with 
Dickinson matter-of-factly noting that her eye got "put out," 
George Eliot describing patriarchal Rome as "a disease of the redna," 
Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh marrying blind men, Charlotte Bronte 
deliberately writing with her eyes closed, and Mary Elizabeth 
Coleridge writing about "Blindness" that came because "Absolute 
and bright, /The Sun's rays smote me ull they masked the Sun."* 3 
Finally, aphasia and amnesia — two illnesses which symbolically 
represent (and parody) the sort of intellectual incapacity patriarchal 
culture has traditionally required of women — appear and reappear 
in women's writings in frankly stated or disguised forms. "Foolish" 
women characters in Jane Austen's novels (Miss Bates in Emma, for 
instance) express Malapropish confusion about language, while 
Mary Shelley's monster has to learn language from scratch and 
Emily Dickinson herself childishly quesdons the meanings of the 
most basic English words: "Will there really be a 'Morning'? /Is 



Infection in the Sentence 59 

there such a thing as 'Day'?"* 4 At the same time, many women 
writers manage to imply that the reason for such ignorance of 
language — as well as the reason for their deep sense of alienation 
and inescapable feeling of anomie — is that they have forgotten some- 
thing. Deprived of the power that even their pens don't seem to 
confer, these women resemble Doris Lessing's heroines, who have 
to fight their internalization of patriarchal strictures for even a faint 
trace memory of what they might have become. 

"Where are the songs I used to know, / Where are the notes I used 
to sing?" writes Christina Rossetti in "The Key-Note," a poem 
whose title indicates its significance for her. "I have forgotten every- 
thing / 1 used to know so long ago." 26 As if to make the same point, 
Charlotte Bronte's Lucy Snowe conveniently "forgets" her own 
history and even, so it seems, the Christian name of one of the central 
characters in her story, while Bronte's orphaned Jane Eyre seems 
to have lost (or symbolically "forgotten") her family heritage. 
Similarly, too, Emily Bronte's HeathclifT "forgets" or is made to 
forget who and what he was; Mary Shelley's monster is "born" 
without either a memory or a family history; and Elizabeth Barrett 
Browning's Aurora Leigh is early separated from — and thus induced 
to "forget" — her "mother land" of Italy. As this last example 
suggests, however, what all these characters and their authors really 
fear they have forgotten is precisely that aspect of their lives which 
has been kept from them by patriarchal poetics: their matrilineal 
heritage of literary strength, their "female power" which, as Annie 
Gottlieb wrote, is important to them because of (not in spite of) their 
mothers. In order, then, not only to understand the ways in which 
"Infection in the sentence breeds" for women but also to learn 
how women have won through disease to artistic health we must 
begin by redefining Bloom's seminal definitions of the revisionary 
"anxiety of influence." In doing so, we will have to trace the difficult 
paths by which nineteenth-century women overcame their "anxiety 
of authorship," repudiated debilitating patriarchal prescriptions, 
and recovered or remembered the lost foremothers who could help 
them find their distinctive female power. 



To begin with, those women who were among the first of their 



60 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

sex to attempt the pen were evidently infected or sickened by just 
the feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, and inferiority that their 
education in "femininity" almost seems to have been designed to 
induce. The necessary converse of the metaphor of literary paternity, 
as we noted in our discussion of that phenomenon, was a belief in 
female literary sterility, a belief that caused literary women like 
Anne Finch to consider with deep anxiety the possibility that they 
might be "Cyphers," powerless intellectual eunuchs. In addition, 
such women were profoundly affected by the sort of assumptions 
that underly an assertion like Rufus Griswold's statement that in 
reading women's writing "We are in danger ... of mistaking for 
the efflorescent energy of creative intelligence, that which is only 
the exuberance of personal 'feelings unemployed.'"** Even if it 
was not absurd for a woman to try to write, this remark implies, 
perhaps it was somehow sick or what we would today call "neurotic." 
"We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us," 
says Austen's Anne Elliot to Captain Harville, not long before they 
embark upon the debate about the male pen and its depiction of 
female "inconstancy" which we discussed earlier. She speaks in 
what Austen describes as "a low, feeling voice," and her remarks 
as well as her manner suggest both her own and her author's acqui- 
escence in the notion that women may be more vulnerable than 
men to the dangers and diseases of "feelings unemployed." 27 

It is not surprising, then, that one of Finch's best and most passion- 
ate poems is an ambitious Pindaric ode entitled "The Spleen." 
Here, in what might almost be a response to Pope's characterization 
of the Queen of Spleen in The Rape of the Lock, Finch confesses and 
explores her own anxiety about the "vaporous" illness whose force, 
she feared, ruled her life and art. Her self-examination is particularly 
interesting not only because of its rigorous honesty, but because that 
honesty compels her to reveal just how severely she herself has been 
influenced by the kinds of misogynistic strictures about women's 
"feelings unemployed" that Pope had embedded in his poem. Thus 
Pope insists that the "wayward Queen" of Spleen rules "the sex to 
fifty from fifteen" — rules women, that is, throughout their "prime" 
of female sexuality — and is therefore the "parent" of both hysteria 
and (female) poetry, and Finch seems at least in part to agree, for 
she notes that "In the Imperious Wife thou Vapours art." That is, 



Infection in the Sentence 61 

insubordinate women' are merely, as Pope himself would have 
thought, neurotic women. "Lordly Man [is] born to Imperial Sway," 
says Finch, but he is defeated by splenetic woman; he "Compounds 
for Peace . . . And Woman, arm'd with Spleen, do's servilely Obey." 
At the same time, however, Finch admits that she feels the most 
pernicious effects of Spleen within herself, and specifically within 
herself as an artist, and she complains of these effects quite movingly, 
without the self-censure that would seem to have followed from her 
earlier vision of female insubordination. Addressing Spleen, she 
writes that 

O'er me alas ! thou dost too much prevail : 
I feel thy Force, whilst I against thee rail ; 

I feel my Verse decay, and my crampt Numbers fail. 

Thro' thy black Jaundice I all Objects see, 
As Dark, and Terrible as Thee, 

My Lines decry'd, and my Employme. 1 thought 

An useless Folly, or presumptuous Fault. 28 

Is it crazy, neurotic, splenetic, to want to be a writer? In "The 
Spleen" Finch admits that she fears it is, suggesting, therefore, that 
Pope's portrayal of her as the foolish and neurotic Phoebe Clinket 
had — not surprisingly — driven her into a Cave of Spleen in her 
own mind. 

When seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women writers — and 
even some nineteenth-century literary women — did not confess that 
they thought it might actually be mad of them to want to attempt 
the pen, they did usually indicate that they felt in some sense apolo- 
getic about such a "presumptuous" pastime. As we saw earlier, 
Finch herself admonished her muse to be cautious "and still retir'd," 
adding that the most she could hope to do as a writer was "still with 
contracted wing, /To some few friends, and to thy sorrows sing." 
Though her self-effacing admonition is riddled with irony, it is also 
serious and practical. As Elaine Showalter has shown, until the end 
of the nineteenth century the woman writer really was supposed to 
take second place to her literary brothers and fathers. 29 If she refused 
to be modest, self-deprecating, subservient, refused to present her 
artistic productions as mere trifles designed to divert and distract 
readers in moments of idleness, she could expect to be ignored or 



62 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

(sometimes scurrilously) attacked. Anne Killigrew, who ambitiously 
implored the "Queen of Verse" to warm her soul with "poetic fire," 
was rewarded for her overreaching with charges of plagiarism. "I 
writ, and the judicious praised my pen : / Could any doubt ensuing 
glory then ?" she notes, recounting as part of the story of her humili- 
ation expectations that would be reasonable enough in a male 
artist. But instead "What ought t'have brought me honour, brought 
me shame." 80 Her American contemporary, Anne Bradstreet, echoes 
the frustration and annoyance expressed here in a discussion of the 
reception she could expect her published poems to receive : 

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue 
Who says my hand a needle better fits, 
A poet's pen all scorn I should thus wrong, 
For such despite they cast on female wits : 
If what I do prove well, it won't advance, 
They'll say it's stol'n, or eke it was by chance. 31 

There is such a weary and worldly accuracy in this analysis that 
plainly, especially in the context of Killigrew's experience, no 
sensible woman writer could overlook the warning implied: be 
modest or else ! Be dark enough thy shades, and be thou there content ! 
Accordingly, Bradstreet herself, eschewing Apollo's manly "bays," 
asks only for a "thyme or parsley wreath," suavely assuring her male 
readers that "This mean and unrefined ore of mine / Will make 
your glist'ring gold but more to shine." And though once again, as 
with Finch's self-admonitions, bitter irony permeates this modesty, 
the very pose of modesty necessarily has its ill effects, both on the 
poet's self-definition and on her art. Just as Finch feels her "Crampt 
Numbers" crippled by the gloomy disease of female Spleen, Bradstreet 
confesses that she has a "foolish, broken, blemished Muse" whose 
defects cannot be mended, since "nature made it so irreparable." 
After all, she adds — as if to cement the connection between femaleness 
and madness, or at least mental deformity — "a weak or wounded 
brain admits no cure." Similarly, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess 
of Newcastle, whose literary activities actually inspired her con- 
temporaries to call her "Mad Madge," seems to have tried to tran- 
scend her own "madness" by deploying the kind of modest, 
"sensible," and self-deprecatory misogyny that characterizes Brad- 



Infection in the Sentence 63 

street's apologia pro vita sua. "It cannot be expected," Cavendish 
avers, that "I should write so wisely or wittily as men, being of the 
effeminate sex, whose brains nature has mixed with the coldest and 
softest elements." Men and women, she goes on to declare, "may be 
compared to the blackbirds, where the hen can never sing with so 
strong and loud a voice, nor so clear and perfect notes as the cock; 
her breast is not made with that strength to strain so high." 32 But 
finally the contradictions between her attitude toward her gender 
and her sense of her own vocation seem really to have made her in 
some sense "mad." It may have been in a fleeting moment of despair 
and self-confrontation that she wrote, "Women live like Bats or 
Owls, labour like Beasts, and die like Worms." But eventually, as 
Virginia Woolf puts it, "the people crowded round her coach when 
she issued out," for "the crazy Duchess became a bogey to frighten 
clever girls with."** 

As Woolf 's comments imply, women who did not apologize for 
their literary efforts were defined as mad and monstrous: freakish 
because "unsexed" or freakish because sexually "fallen." If 
Cavendish's extraordinary intellectual ambitions made her seem 
like an aberration of nature, and Finch's writing caused her to be 
defined as a fool, an absolutely immodest, unapologetic rebel like 
Aphra Behn — the first really "professional" literary woman in 
England — was and is always considered a somewhat "shady lady," 
no doubt promiscuous, probably self-indulgent, and certainly "in- 
decent." "What has poor woman done, that she must be /Debarred 
from sense and sacred poetry?" Behn frankly asked, and she seems 
just as frankly to have lived the life of a Restoration rake. 34 In con- 
sequence, like some real-life Duessa, she was gradually but inexorably 
excluded (even exorcized) not only from the canon of serious literature 
but from the parlors and libraries of respectability. 

By the beginning of the bourgeois nineteenth century, however, 
both money and "morality" had become so important that no 
serious writer could afford either psychologically or economically to 
risk Behn's kind of "shadiness." Thus we find Jane Austen decorously 
protesting in 1816 that she is constitutionally unable to join "manly, 
spirited Sketches" to the "litde bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory," on 
which, figuratively speaking, she claimed to inscribe her novels, and 
Charlotte Bronte assuring Robert Southey in 1837 that "I have 



64 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

endeavored ... to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfil." 
Confessing with shame that "1 don't always succeed, for sometimes 
when I'm teaching or sewing, I would rather be reading or writing," 
she dutifully adds that "I try to deny myself; and my father's ap- 
probation amply rewardfs] me for the privation." M Similarly, in 
1862 we discover Emily Dickinson telling Thomas Wentworth 
Higginson that publication is as "foreign to my thought, as Fir- 
mament to Fin," implying that she is generically unsuited to such 
self-advertisement, 3 * while in 1869 we see Louisa May Alcott's Jo 
March learning to write moral homilies for children instead of 
ambitious gothic thrillers. Clearly there is conscious or semiconscious 
irony in all these choices of the apparently miniature over the 
assuredly major, of the domestic over the dramatic, of the private 
over the public, of obscurity over glory. But just as clearly the very 
need to make such choices emphasizes the sickening anxiety of 
authorship inherent in the situation of almost every woman writer 
in England and America until quite recently. 

What the lives and lines and choices of all these women tell us, 
in short, is that the literary woman has always faced equally de- 
grading options when she had to define her public presence in the 
world. If she did not suppress her work entirely or publish it pseud- 
onymously or anonymously, she could modestly confess her female 
"limitations" and concentrate on the "lesser" subjects reserved for 
ladies as becoming to their inferior powers. If the latter alternative 
seemed an admission of failure, she could rebel, accepting the ostra- 
cism that must have seemed inevitable. Thus, as Virginia Woolf 
observed, the woman writer seemed locked into a disconcerting 
double bind : she had to choose between admitting she was "only a 
woman" or protesting that she was "as good as a man."* 7 Inevitably, 
as we shall see, the literature produced by women confronted with 
such anxiety-inducing choices has been strongly marked not only 
by an obsessive interest in these limited options but also by obsessive 
imagery of confinement that reveals the ways in which female artists 
feel trapped and sickened both by suffocating alternatives and by 
the culture that created them. Goethe's fictional Makarie was not, 
after all, the only angelic woman to suffer from terrible headaches. 
George Eliot (like Virginia Woolf) had them too, and perhaps we 
can begin to understand why. 



Infection in the Sentence 65 



To consider the afflictions of George Eliot, however, is to bring 
to mind another strategy the insubordinate woman writer eventually 
developed for dealing with her socially prescribed subordination. 
Where women like Finch and Bradstreet apologized for their supposed 
inadequacies while women like Behn and Cavendish flaunted their 
freakishness, the most rebellious of their nineteenth-century descen- 
dants attempted to solve the literary problem of being female by 
presenting themselves as male. In effect, such writers protested not 
that they were "as good as" men but that, as writers, they were men. 
George Sand and (following her) George Eliot most famously used 
a kind of male-impersonation to gain male acceptance of their 
intellectual seriousness. But the three Bronte sisters, too, concealed 
their troublesome femaleness behind the masks of Currer, Ellis, and 
Acton Bell, names which Charlotte Bronte disingenuously insisted 
they had chosen for their androgynous neutrality but which most of 
their earliest readers assumed were male. For all these women, the 
cloak of maleness was obviously a practical-seeming refuge from 
those claustrophobic double binds of "femininity" which had given 
so much pain to writers like Bradstreet, Finch, and Cavendish. 

Disguised as a man, after all, a woman writer could move vigorously 
away from the "lesser subjects" and "lesser lives" which had con- 
strained her foremothers. Like the nineteenth-century French painter 
Rosa Bonheur, who wore male clothes so she could visit slaughter- 
houses and racecourses to study the animals she depicted, the "male- 
identified" woman writer felt that, dressed in the male "costume" 
of her pseudonym, she could walk more freely about the provinces 
of literature that were ordinarily forbidden to ladies. With Bonheur, 
therefore, she could boast that "My trousers have been my great 
protectors. . . . Many times I have congratulated myself for having 
dared to break with traditions which would have forced me to 
abstain from certain kinds of work, due to the obligation to drag 
my skirts everywhere. " SB 

Yet though the metaphorical trousers of women like Sand and 
Eliot and the Brontes enabled them to maneuver for position in an 
overwhelmingly male literary tradition, such costumes also proved 
to be as problematical if not as debilitating as any of the more modest 



66 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

and ladylike garments writers like Finch and Bradstreet might be 
said to have adopted. For a woman artist is, after all, a woman — that 
is her "problem" — and if she denies her own gender she inevitably 
confronts an identity crisis as severe as the anxiety of authorship she 
is trying to surmount. There is a hint of such a crisis in Bonheur's 
discussion of her trousers. "I had no alternative but to realize that 
the garments of my own sex were a total nuisance," she explains. 
"But the costume I am wearing is my working outfit, nothing else. 
[And] if you are the slightest bit put off, I am completely prepared to 
put on a skirt, especially since all I have to do is to open a closet to 
find a whole assortment of feminine outfits." 38 Literal or figurative 
male impersonation seems to bring with it a nervous compulsion 
toward "feminine protest," along with a resurgence of the same fear 
of freakishness or monstrosity that necessitated male mimicry in the 
first place. As most literary women would have remembered, after 
all, it is Lady Macbeth — one of Shakespeare's most unsavory heroines 
— who asks the gods to "unsex" her in the cause of ambition. 

Inalterably female in a culture where creativity is defined purely in 
male terms, almost every woman writer must have experienced the 
kinds of gender-conflicts that Aphra Behn expressed when she spoke 
of "my masculine part, the poet in me." 40 But for the nineteenth- 
century woman who tried to transcend her own anxiety of authorship 
and achieve patriarchal authority through metaphorical transvestism 
or male impersonation, even more radical psychic confusion must 
have been inevitable. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's two striking 
sonnets on George Sand define and analyze the problem such a 
woman faced. In the first of these pieces ("To George Sand, A 
Desire") Barrett Browning describes the French writer, whom she 
passionately admired, as a self-created freak, a "large-brained woman 
and large-hearted man / Self-called George Sand," and she declares 
her hope that "to woman's claim /And man's" Sand might join an 
"angel's grace," the redeeming strength "of a pure genius sanctified 
from blame." The implication is that, since Sand has crossed into 
forbidden and anomalous sociosexual territory, she desperately needs 
"purification" — sexual, spiritual, and social. On the other hand, 
in the second sonnet ("To George Sand, A Recognition") Barrett 
Browning insists that no matter what Sand does she is still inalterably 
female, and thus inexorably agonized. 



Infection in the Sentence 67 

True genius, but true woman, dost deny 
The woman's nature with a manly scorn, 
And break away the gauds and armlets worn 
By weaker women in captivity? 
Ah, vain denial ! that revolted cry 
Is sobbed in by a woman's voice forlorn. 
Thy woman's hair, my sister, all unshorn, 
Floats back dishevelled strength in agony, 
Disproving thy man's name * l 

In fact, Barrett Browning declares, only in death will Sand be able to 
transcend the constrictions of her gender. Then God will "unsex" her 
"on the heavenly shore." But until then, she must acquiesce in her 
inescapable femaleness, manifested by her "woman-heart's" terrible 
beating "in a poet fire." 

Barrett Browning's imagery is drastic, melodramatic, even gro- 
tesque, but there are strong reasons for the intensity with which she 
characterizes Sand's representative identity crisis. As her own pas- 
sionate involvement suggests, the problem Barrett Browning is really 
confronting in the Sand sonnets goes beyond the contradictions 
between vocation and gender that induced such anxiety in all these 
women, to include what we might call contradictions of genre and 
gender. Most Western literary genres are, after all, essentially male — 
devised by male authors to tell male stories about the world. 

In its original form, for instance, the novel traditionally traces 
what patriarchal society has always thought of as a masculine pattern : 
the rise of a middle-class hero past dramatically depicted social and 
economic obstacles to a higher and more suitable position in the world. 
(Significantly, indeed, when a heroine rises — as in Pamela — she 
usually does so through the offices of a hero.) Similarly, our great 
paradigmatic tragedies, from Oedipus to Faust, tend to focus on a 
male "overreacher" whose virile will to dominate or rebel (or both) 
makes him simultaneously noble and vulnerable. From the rake- 
rogue to his modern counterpart the traveling salesman, moreover, 
our comic heroes are quintessentially male in their escapades and 
conquests, while from the epic to the historical novel, the detective 
story to the "western," European and American narrative literature 
has concentrated much of its attention on male characters who 



68 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

occupy powerful public roles from which women have almost always 
been excluded. 

Verse genres have been even more thoroughly male than fictional 
ones. The sonnet, beginning with Petrarch's celebrations of "his" 
Laura, took shape as a poem in praise of the poet's mistress (who, 
we saw in Norman O. Brown's comment, can never herself be a poet 
because she "is" poetry). The "Great Ode" encourages the poet to 
define himself as a priestlike bard. The satiric epistle is usually written 
when a writer's manly rage transforms "his" pen into a figurative 
sword. And the pastoral elegy — beginning with Moscus's "Lament 
for Bion" — traditionally expresses a poet's grief over the death of a 
brother-poet, through whose untimely loss he faces and resolves the 
cosmic questions of death and rebirth. 

It is true, of course, that even beyond what we might call the Pamela 
plot, some stories have been imagined for women, by male poets as 
well as male novelists. As we have seen, however, most of these stories 
tend to perpetuate extreme and debilitating images of women as 
angels or monsters. Thus the genres associated with such plot para- 
digms present just as many difficulties to the woman writer as those 
works of literature which focus primarily on men. If she identifies 
with a snow-white heroine, the glass coffin of romance "feels" like 
a deathbed to the female novelist, as Mary Shelley trenchantly shows 
in Frankenstein, while the grim exorcism from society of such a female 
"overreacher" as "Snow White's" Queen has always been a source 
of anxiety to literary women rather than the inspiration for a tale 
of tragic grandeur. It is Macbeth, after all, who is noble; Lady 
Macbeth is a monster. Similarly, Oedipus is a heroic figure while 
Medea is merely a witch, and Lear's madness is gloriously universal 
while Ophelia's is just pathetic. Yet to the extent that the structure of 
tragedy reflects the structure of patriarchy — to the extent, that is, 
that tragedy must be about the "fall" of a character who is "high" — 
the genre of tragedy, rather than simply employing such stories, itself 
necessitates them. 42 

To be sure, there is no real reason why a woman writer cannot tell 
traditional kinds of stories, even if they are about male heroes and 
even if they inevitably fit into male-devised generic structures. As 
Joyce Carol Oates has observed, critics often "fail to see how the 
creative artist shares to varying degrees the personalities of all his 



Infection in the Sentence 69 

characters, even those whom he appears to detest — perhaps, at 
times, it is these characters he is really closest to." 43 It is significant, 
however, that this statement was made by a woman, for the remark 
suggests the extent to which a female artist in particular is keenly 
aware that she must inevitably project herself into a number of 
uncongenial characters and situations. It suggests, too, the degree of 
anxiety a literary woman may feel about such a splitting or distribu- 
tion of her identity, as well as the self-dislike she may experience in 
feeling that she is "really closest to" those characters she "appears to 
detest." Perhaps this dis-ease, which we might almost call "schizo- 
phrenia of authorship," is one to which a woman writer is especially 
susceptible because she herself secretly realizes that her employment 
of (and participation in) patriarchal plots and genres inevitably 
involves her in duplicity or bad faith. 

If a female novelist uses the Pamela plot, for instance, she is 
exploiting a story that implies women cannot and should not do what 
she is herself accomplishing in writing her book. Ambitious to rise by 
her own literary exertions, she is implicitly admonishing her female 
readers that they can hope to rise only through male intervention. 
At the same time, as Joanna Russ has pointed out, if a woman writer 
"abandon[s] female protagonists altogether and stick[s] to male 
myths with male protagonists . . . she falsifies herself and much of 
her own experience." 44 For though writers (as Oates implies) do use 
masks and disguises in most of their work, though what Keats called 
"the poetical Character" in some sense has "no self" because it is 
so many selves, 45 the continual use of male models inevitably involves 
the female artist in a dangerous form of psychological self-denial that 
goes far beyond the metaphysical self-Iessness Keats was contem- 
plating. As Barrett Browning's Sand sonnets suggest, such self-denial 
may precipitate severe identity crises because the male impersonator 
begins to see herself as freakish — not wholesomely androgynous but 
unhealthily hermaphroditic. In addition, such self-denial may be- 
come even more than self-destructive when the female author finds 
herself creating works of fiction that subordinate other women by 
perpetuating a morality that sanctifies or vilifies all women into 
submission. When Harriet Beecher Stowe, in "My Wife and I," 
assumes the persona of an avuncular patriarch educating females in 
their domestic duties, we resent the duplicity and compromise in- 



70 Toward a Feminist Poeties 

volved, as well as Stowe's betrayal of her own sex. 49 Similarly, when 
in Little Women Louisa May Alcott "teaches" Jo March to renounce 
gothic thrillers, we cannot help feeling that it is hypocritical of her 
to continue writing such tales herself. And inevitably, of course, such 
duplicity, compromise, and hypocrisy take their greatest toll on the 
artist who practices them : if a writer cannot be accurate and consistent 
in her art, how can her work be true to its own ideas ? 

Finally, even when male mimicry does not entail moral or aesthetic 
compromises of the kind we have been discussing, the use of male 
devised plots, genres, and conventions may involve a female writer 
in uncomfortable contradictions and tensions. When Elizabeth Bar- 
rett Browning writes "An Essay on Mind," a long meditative- 
philosophic poem of a kind previously composed mainly by men 
(with Pope's "Essay on Man" a representative work in the genre), 
she catalogues all the world's "great" poets, and all are male; the 
women she describes are muses. When in the same work, moreover, 
she describes the joys of intellectual discovery she herself must have 
felt as a girl, she writes about a schoolboy and his exultant response 
to the classics. Significantly, the "Essay on Mind" is specifically the 
poem Barrett Browning was discussing when she noted that her early 
writing was done by a "copy" self. Yet even as a mature poet she 
included only one woman in "A Vision of Poets" — Sappho — and 
remarked of her, as she did of George Sand, that the contradictions 
between her vocation and her gender were so dangerous that they 
might lead to complete self-destruction. 47 

Similarly, as we shall see, Charlotte Bronte disguised herself as 
a man in order to narrate her first novel, The Professor, and devoted a 
good deal of space in the book to "objective" analyses of the flaws 
and failings of young women her own age, as if trying to distance 
herself as much as possible from the female sex. The result, as with 
Barrett Browning's "Essay on Mind," is a "copy" work which exem- 
plifies the aesthetic tensions and moral contradictions that threaten 
the woman writer who tries to transcend her own female anxiety of 
authorship by pretending she is male. Speaking of the Brontes' 
desire "to throw the color of masculinity into their writing," their 
great admirer Mrs. Gaskell once remarked that, despite the spiritual 
sincerity of the sisters, at times "this desire to appear male" made 
their work "technically false," even "[made] their writing squint." 48 



Infection in the Sentence 71 

That Gaskell used a metaphor of physical discomfort — "squinting" — 
is significant, for the phenomenon of male mimicry is itself a sign of 
female dis-ease, a sign that infection, or at least headaches, "in the 
sentence" breed. 

Yet the attempted cure is as problematical as the disease, a point 
we shall consider in greater detail in our discussions both of The 
Professor and of George Eliot. For as the literary difficulties of male- 
impersonations show, the female genius who denies her femaleness 
engages in what Barrett Browning herself called a "vain denial." Her 
"revolted cry / Is sobbed in by a woman's voice forlorn," and her 
"woman's hair" reveals her "dishevelled strength in agony," all too 
often disproving, contradicting, and subverting whatever practical 
advantages she gets from her "man's name." At the same time, 
however, the woman who squarely confronts both her own femaleness 
and the patriarchal nature of the plots and poetics available to her 
as an artist may feel herself struck dumb by what seem to be irrecon- 
cileable contradictions of genre and gender. An entry in Margaret 
Fuller's journal beautifully summarizes this problem : 

For all the tides of life that flow within me, I am dumb and 
ineffectual, when it comes to casting my thought into a form. 
No old one suits me. If I could invent one, it seems to me the 
pleasure of creation would make it possible for me to write. . . . 
I love best to be a woman; but womanhood is at present too 
straitly-bounded to give me scope. At hours, I live truly as a 
woman ; at others, I should stifle ; as, on the other hand, I should 
palsy, when I play the artist. 4 ' 



Dis-eased and infected by the sentences of patriarchy, yet unable 
to deny the urgency of that "poet-fire" she felt within herself, what 
strategies did the woman writer develop for overcoming her anxiety 
of authorship? How did she dance out of the looking glass of the male 
text into a tradition that enabled her to create her own authority? 
Denied the economic, social, and psychological status ordinarily 
essential to creativity; denied the right, skill, and education to tell 
their own stories with confidence, women who did not retreat into 
angelic silence seem at first to have had very limited options. On the 



72 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

one hand, they could accept the "parsley wreath" of self-denial, 
writing in "lesser" genres — children's books, letters, diaries — or 
limiting their readership to "mere" women like themselves and 
producing what George Eliot called "Silly Novels by Lady Nov- 
elists." *° On the other hand, they could become males manquis, mimics 
who disguised their identities and, denying themselves, produced 
most frequently a literature of bad faith and inauthenticity. Given 
such weak solutions to what appears to have been an overwhelming 
problem, how could there be a great tradition of literature by women? 
Yet, as we shall show, there is just such a tradition, a tradition 
especially encompassing the works of nineteenth-century women 
writers who found viable ways of circumventing the problematic 
strategies we have just outlined. 

Inappropriate as male-devised genres must always have seemed, 
some women have always managed to work seriously in them. Indeed, 
when we examine the great works written by nineteenth-century 
women poets and novelists, we soon notice two striking facts. First, 
an extraordinary number of literary women either eschewed or grew 
beyond both female "modesty" and male mimicry. From Austen 
to Dickinson, these female artists all dealt with central female expe- 
riences from a specifically female perspective. But this distinctively 
feminine aspect of their art has been generally ignored by critics 
because the most successful women writers often seem to have 
channeled their female concerns into secret or at least obscure corners. 
In effect, such women have created submerged meanings, meanings 
hidden within or behind the more accessible, "public" content of 
their works, so that their literature could be read and appreciated 
even when its vital concern with female dispossession and disease 
was ignored. Second, the writing of these women often seems "odd" 
in relation to the predominantly male literary history defined by the 
standards of what we have called patriarchal poetics. Neither Augus- 
tans nor Romantics, neither Victorian sages nor Pre-Raphaelite 
sensualists, many of the most distinguished late eighteenth-century 
and nineteenth-century English and American women writers do 
not seem to "fit" into any of those categories to which our literary 
historians have accustomed us. Indeed, to many critics and scholars, 
some of these literary women look like isolated eccentrics. 

We may legitimately wonder, however, if the second striking fact 



Infection in the Sentence 73 

about nineteenth-century literature by women may not in some sense 
be a function of the first. Could the "oddity" of this work be associated 
with women's secret but insistent struggle to transcend their anxiety 
of authorship? Could the "isolation" and apparent "eccentricity" of 
these women really represent their common female struggle to solve 
the problem of what Anne Finch called the literary woman's "fall," 
as well as their common female search for an aesthetic that would yield 
a healthy space in an overwhelmingly male "Palace of Art" ? Certainly 
when we consider the "oddity" of women's writing in relation to its 
submerged content, it begins to seem that when women did not turn 
into male mimics or accept the "parsley wreath" they may have 
attempted to transcend their anxiety of authorship by revising male 
genres, using them to record their own dreams and their own stories 
in disguise. Such writers, therefore, both participated in and — to 
use one of Harold Bloom's key terms — "swerved" from the central 
sequences of male literary history, enacting a uniquely female process 
of revision and redefinition that necessarily caused them to seem 
"odd." At the same time, while they achieved essential authority 
by telling their own stories, these writers allayed their distinctively 
female anxieties of authorship by following Emily Dickinson's famous 
(and characteristically female) advice to "Tell all the Truth but tell 
it slant — ." 5I In short, like the twentieth-century American poet 
H. D., who declared her aesthetic strategy by entitling one of her 
novels Palimpsest, women from Jane Austen and Mary Shelley to 
Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson produced literary works that are 
in some sense palimpsestic, works whose surface designs conceal or 
obscure deeper, less accessible (and less socially acceptable) levels 
of meaning. Thus these authors managed the difficult task of achieving 
true female literary authority by simultaneously conforming to and 
subverting patriarchal literary standards. 

Of course, as the allegorical figure of Duessa suggests, men have 
always accused women of the duplicity that is essential to the literary 
strategies we are describing here. In part, at least, such accusations 
are well founded, both in life and in art. As in the white-black 
relationship, the dominant group in the male-female relationship 
rightly fears and suspects that the docility of the subordinate caste 
masks rebellious passions. Moreover, just as blacks did in the master- 
slave relationships of the American South, women in patriarchy have 



74 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

traditionally cultivated accents of acquiescence in order to gain 
freedom to live their lives on their own terms, if only in the privacy 
of their own thoughts. Interestingly, indeed, several feminist critics 
have recently used Frantz Fanon's model of colonialism to describe 
the relationship between male (parent) culture and female (colonized) 
literature." But with only one language at their disposal, women 
writers in England and America had to be even more adept at 
doubletalk than their colonized counterparts. We shall see, therefore, 
that in publicly presenting acceptable facades for private and danger- 
ous visions women writers have long used a wide range of tactics to 
obscure but not obliterate their most subversive impulses. Along with 
the twentieth-century American painter Judy Chicago, any one of 
these artists might have noted that "formal issues" were often "some- 
thing that my content had to be hidden behind in order for my work 
to be taken seriously." And with Judy Chicago, too, any one of these 
women might have confessed that "Because of this duplicity, there 
always appeared to be something 'not quite right' about my pieces 
according to the prevailing aesthetic." 43 

To be sure, male writers also "swerve" from their predecessors, 
and they too produce literary texts whose revolutionary messages 
are concealed behind stylized facades. The most original male writers, 
moreover, sometimes seem "not quite right" to those readers we have 
recendy come to call "establishment" critics. As Bloom's theory of 
the anxiety of influence implies, however, and as our analysis of the 
metaphor of literary paternity also suggests, there are powerful 
paradigms of male intellectual struggle which enable the male writer 
to explain his rebelliousness, his "swerving," and his "originality" 
both to himself and to the world, no matter how many readers think 
him "not quite right." In a sense, therefore, he conceals his revolu- 
tionary energies only so that he may more powerfully reveal them, 
and swerves or rebels so that he may triumph by founding a new 
order, since his struggle against his precursor is a "battle of strong 
equals." 

For the woman writer, however, concealment is not a military 
gesture but a strategy born of fear and dis-ease. Similarly, a literary 
"swerve" is not a motion by which the writer prepares for a victorious 
accession to power but a necessary evasion. Locked into structures 
created by and for men, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women 



Infection in the Sentence 75 

writers did not so much rebel against the prevailing aesthetic as feel 
guilty about their inability to conform to it. With little sense of a 
viable female culture, such women were plainly much troubled by 
the fact that they needed to communicate truths which other (i.e. 
male) writers apparently never felt or expressed. Conditioned to 
doubt their own authority anyway, women writers who wanted to 
describe what, in Dickinson's phrase, is "not brayed of tongue"** 
would find it easier to doubt themselves than the censorious voices of 
society. The evasions and concealments of their art are therefore far 
more elaborate than those of most male writers. For, given the patri- 
archal biases of nineteenth-century literary culture, the literary 
woman did have something crucial to hide. 

Because so many of the lost or concealed truths of female culture 
have recently been retrieved by feminist scholars, women readers in 
particular have lately become aware that nineteenth-century literary 
women felt they had things to hide. Many feminist critics, therefore, 
have begun to write about these phenomena of evasion and conceal- 
ment in women's writing. In The Female Imagination, for instance, 
Patricia Meyer Spacks repeatedly describes the ways in which 
women's novels are marked by "subterranean challenges" to truths 
that the writers of such works appear on the surface to accept. 
Similarly, Carolyn Heilbrun and Catharine Stimpson discuss "the 
presence of absence" in literature by women, the "hollows, centers, 
caverns within the work — places where activity that one might expect 
is missing. . . or deceptively coded." Perhaps most trenchantly, Elaine 
Showalter has recently pointed out that feminist criticism, with its 
emphasis on the woman writer's inevitable consciousness of her own 
gender, has allowed us to "see meaning in what has previously been 
empty space. The orthodox plot recedes, and another plot, hitherto 
submerged in the anonymity of the background, stands out in bold 
relief like a thumbprint."* 8 

But what is this other plot? Is there any one other plot? What is 
the secret message of literature by women, if there is a single secret 
message? What, in other words, have women got to hide? Most 
obviously, of course, if we return to the angelic figure of Makarie — 
that ideal of "contemplative purity" who no doubt had headaches 
precisely because her author inflicted upon her a life that seemed to 
have "no story" — what literary women have hidden or disguised is 



76 Toward a Feminist Potties 

what each writer knows is in some sense her own story. Because, as 
Simone de Beauvoir puts it, women "still dream through the dreams 
of men," internalizing the strictures that the Queen's looking glass 
utters in its kingly voice, the message or story that has been hidden 
is "merely," in Carolyn Kizer's bitter words, "the private lives of 
one half of humanity." 5 * More specifically, however, the one plot 
that seems to be concealed in most of the nineteenth-century literature 
by women which will concern us here is in some sense a story of the 
woman writer's quest for her own story; it is the story, in other words, 
of the woman's quest for self-definition. Like the speaker of Mary 
Elizabeth Coleridge's "The Other Side of a Mirror," the literary 
woman frequently finds herself staring with horror at a fearful image 
of herself that has been mysteriously inscribed on the surface of the 
glass, and she tries to guess the truth that cannot be uttered by the 
wounded and bleeding mouth, the truth behind the "leaping fire / Of 
jealousy and fierce revenge," the truth "of hard unsanctified distress." 
Uneasily aware that, like Sylvia Plath, she is "inhabited by a cry," 
she secretly seeks to unify herself by coming to terms with her own 
fragmentation. Yet even though, with Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, 
she strives to "set the crystal surface" of the mirror free from frightful 
images, she continually feels, as May Sarton puts it, that she has 
been "broken in two /By sheer definition." 5 ' The story "no man 
may guess," therefore, is the story of her attempt to make herself 
whole by healing her own infections and diseases. 

To heal herself, however, the woman writer must exorcise the 
sentences which bred her infection in the first place; she must overtly 
or covertly free herself of the despair she inhaled from some "Wrinkled 
Maker," and she can only do this by revising the Maker's texts. Or, 
to put the matter in terms of a different metaphor, to "set the crystal 
surface free" a literary woman must shatter the mirror that has so 
long reflected what every woman was supposed to be. For these 
reasons, then, women writers in England and America, throughout 
the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth, have been especially 
concerned with assaulting and revising, deconstructing and recon- 
strucdng those images of women inherited from male literature, 
especially, as we noted in our discussion of the Queen's looking glass, 
the paradigmadc polarities of angel and monster. Examining and 
attacking such images, however, literary women have inevitably had 



Infection in the Sentence 77 

consciously or unconsciously to reject the values and assumptions of 
the society that created these fearsome paradigms. Thus, even when 
they do not overtly criticize patriarchal institutions or conventions 
(and most of the nineteenth-century women we shall be studying do 
not overtly do so), these writers almost obsessively create characters 
who enact their own, covert authorial anger. With Charlotte Bronte, 
they may feel that there are "evils" of which it is advisable "not too 
often to think." With George Eliot, they may declare that the 
"woman question" seems "to overhang abysses, of which even pros- 
titution is not the worst." 68 But over and over again they project 
what seems to be the energy of their own despair into passionate, 
even melodramatic characters who act out the subversive impulses 
every woman inevitably feels when she contemplates the "deep- 
rooted" evils of patriarchy. 

It is significant, then, that when the speaker of "The Other Side 
of a Mirror" looks into her glass the woman that she sees is a mad- 
woman, "wild / With more than womanly despair," the monster that 
she fears she really is rather than the angel she has pretended to be. 
What the heroine of George Eliot's verse-drama Armgari calls "basely 
feigned content, the placid mask / Of woman's misery" is merely a 
mask, and Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, like so many of her contem- 
poraries, records the emergence from behind the mask of a figure 
whose rage "once no man on earth could guess." 69 Repudiating 
"basely feigned content," this figure arises like a bad dream, bloody, 
envious, enraged, as if the very process of writing had itself liberated 
a madwoman, a crazy and angry woman, from a silence in which 
neither she nor her author can continue to acquiesce. Thus although 
Coleridge's mirrored madwoman is an emblem of "speechless woe" 
because she has "no voice to speak her dread," the poet ultimately 
speaks for her when she whispers "I am she!" More, she speaks for 
her in writing the poem that narrates her emergence from behind the 
placid mask, "the aspects glad and gay, /That erst were found 
reflected there." 

As we explore nineteenth-century literature, we will find that this 
madwoman emerges over and over again from the mirrors women 
writers hold up both to their own natures and to their own visions 
of nature. Even the most apparently conservative and decorous 
women writers obsessively create fiercely independent characters who 



78 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

seek to destroy all the patriarchal structures which both their authors 
and their authors' submissive heroines seem to accept as inevitable. Of 
course, by projecting their rebellious impulses not into their heroines 
but into mad or monstrous women (who are suitably punished in 
the course of the novel or poem), female authors dramatize their own 
self-division, their desire both to accept the strictures of patriarchal 
society and to reject them. What this means, however, is that the 
madwoman in literature by women is not merely, as she might be 
in male literature, an antagonist or foil to the heroine. Rather, she 
is usually in some sense the author's double, an image of her own 
anxiety and rage. Indeed, much of the poetry and fiction written 
by women conjures up this mad creature so that female authors can 
come to terms with their own uniquely female feelings of fragmenta- 
tion, their own keen sense of the discrepancies between what they 
are and what they are supposed to be. 

We shall see, then, that the mad double is as crucial to the aggres- 
sively sane novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot as she is in the 
more obviously rebellious stories told by Charlotte and Emily Bronte. 
Both gothic and anti-gothic writers represent themselves as split like 
Emily Dickinson between the elected nun and the damned witch, 
or like Mary Shelley between the noble, censorious scientist and his 
enraged, childish monster. In fact, so important is this female schizo- 
phrenia of authorship that, as we hope to show, it links these nine- 
teenth-century writers with such twentieth-century descendants as 
Virginia Woolf (who projects herself into both ladylike Mrs. Dalloway 
and crazed Septimus Warren Smith), Doris Lessing (who divides 
herself between sane Martha Hesse and mad Lynda Coldridge), and 
Sylvia Plath (who sees herself as both a plaster saint and a dangerous 
"old yellow" monster). 

To be sure, in the works of all these artists — both nineteenth- and 
twentieth-century — the mad character is sometimes created only to 
be destroyed : Septimus Warren Smith and Bertha Mason Rochester 
are both good examples of such characters, as is Victor Frankenstein's 
monster. Yet even when a figure of rage seems to function only as a 
monitory image, her (or his) fury must be acknowledged not only 
by the angelic protagonist to whom s/he is opposed, but, significantly, 
by the reader as well. With his usual perceptiveness, Geoffrey Chaucer 
anticipated the dynamics of this situation in the Canterbury Tales. 



Infection in the Sentence 79 

When he gave the Wife of Bath a tale of her own, he portrayed her 
projecting her subversive vision of patriarchal institutions into the 
story of a furious hag who demands supreme power over her own life 
and that of her husband : only when she gains his complete acceptance 
of her authority does this witch transform herself into a modest and 
docile beauty. Five centuries later, the threat of the hag, the monster, 
the witch, the madwoman, still lurks behind the compliant paragon 
of women's stories. 

To mention witches, however, is to be reminded once again of 
the traditional (patriarchally defined) association between creative 
women and monsters. In projecting their anger and dis-ease into 
dreadful figures, creating dark doubles for themselves and their 
heroines, women writers are both identifying with and revising the 
self-definitions patriarchal culture has imposed on them. All the 
nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary women who evoke the 
female monster in their novels and poems alter her meaning by virtue 
of their own identification with her. For it is usually because she is 
in some sense imbued with interiority that the witch-monster-mad- 
woman becomes so crucial an avatar of the writer's own self. From a 
male point of view, women who reject the submissive silences of 
domesticity have been seen as terrible objects — Gorgons, Sirens, 
Scyllas, serpent-Lamias, Mothers of Death or Goddesses of Night. 
But from a female point of view the monster woman is simply a 
woman who seeks the power of self-articulation, and therefore, like 
Mary Shelley giving the first-person story of a monster who seemed 
to his creator to be merely a "filthy mass that moves and talks," she 
presents this figure for the first time from the inside out. Such a 
radical misreading of patriarchal poetics frees the woman artist to 
imply her criticism of the literary conventions she has inherited even 
as it allows her to express her ambiguous relationship to a culture that 
has not only defined her gender but shaped her mind. In a sense, as 
a famous poem by Muriel Rukeyser implies, all these women ulti- 
mately embrace the role of that most mythic of female monsters, the 
Sphinx, whose indecipherable message is the key to existence, because 
they know that the secret wisdom so long hidden from men is precisely 
their point of view. 80 

There is a sense, then, in which the female literary tradition we 
have been defining participates on all levels in the same duality or 



80 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

duplicity that necessitates the generation of such doubles as monster 
characters who shadow angelic authors and mad anti-heroines who 
complicate the lives of sane heroines. Parody, for instance, is another 
one of the key strategies through which this female duplicity reveals 
itself. As we have noted, nineteenth-century women writers frequently 
both use and misuse (or subvert) a common male tradition or genre. 
Consequently, we shall see over and over again that a "complex 
vibration" occurs between stylized generic gestures and unexpected 
deviations from such obvious gestures, a vibration that undercuts 
and ridicules the genre being employed. Some of the best-known 
recent poetry by women openly uses such parody in the cause of 
feminism: traditional figures of patriarchal mythology like Circe, 
Leda, Cassandra, Medusa, Helen, and Persephone have all lately 
been reinvented in the images of their female creators, and each 
poem devoted to one of these figures is a reading that reinvents her 
original story. 81 But though nineteenth-century women did not 
employ this kind of parody so openly and angrily, they too deployed 
it to give contextual force to their revisionary attempts at self- 
definition. Jane Austen's novels of sense and sensibility, for instance, 
suggest a revolt against both those standards of female excellence. 
Similarly, Charlotte Bronte's critical revision of Pilgrim's Progress 
questions the patriarchal ideal of female submissiveness by sub- 
stituting a questing Everywoman for Bunyan's questing Christian. 
In addition, as we shall show in detail in later chapters, Mary Shelley, 
Emily Bronte, and George Eliot covertly reappraise and repudiate 
the misogyny implicit in Milton's mythology by misreading and 
revising Milton's story of woman's fall. Parodic, dupUcitous, extra- 
ordinarily sophisticated, all this female writing is both revisionary 
and revolutionary, even when it is produced by writers we usually 
think of as models of angelic resignation. 

To summarize this point, it is helpful to examine a work by 
the woman who seems to be the most modest and gende of the three 
Bronte sisters. Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wild/ell Hall (1848) is 
generally considered conservative in its espousal of Christian values, 
but it tells what is in fact a story of woman's liberation. Specifically, 
it describes a woman's escape from the prisonhouse of a bad marriage, 
and her subsequent attempts to achieve independence by establishing 
herself in a career as an artist. Since Helen Graham, the novel's 



Infection in the Sentence 81 

protagonist, must remain incognito in order to elude her husband, 
she signs with false initials the landscapes she produces when she 
becomes a professional artist, and she titles the works in such a way 
as to hide her whereabouts. In short, she uses her art both to express 
and to camouflage herself. But this functionally ambiguous aesthetic 
is not merely a result of her flight from home and husband. For even 
earlier in the novel, when we encounter Helen before her marriage, 
her use of art is duplicitous. Her painting and drawing seem at 
first simply to be genteel social accomplishments, but when she shows 
one of her paintings to her future husband, he discovers a pencil 
sketch of his own face on the back of the canvas. Helen has been 
using the reverse side of her paintings to express her secret desires, 
and although she has remembered to rub out all the other sketches, 
this one remains, eventually calling his attention to the dim traces 
on the backs of all the others. 

In the figure of Helen Graham, Anne Bronte has given us a wonder- 
fully useful paradigm of the female artist. Whether Helen covertly 
uses a supposedly modest young lady's "accomplishments" for 
unladylike self-expression or publicly flaunts her professionalism 
and independence, she must in some sense deny or conceal her own 
art, or at least deny the self-assertion implicit in her art. In other 
words, there is an essential ambiguity involved in her career as an 
artist. When, as a girl, she draws on the backs of her paintings, she 
must make the paintings themselves work as public masks to hide 
her private dreams, and only behind such masks does she feel free 
to choose her own subjects. Thus she produces a public art which 
she herself rejects as inadequate but which she secretly uses to discover 
a new aesthetic space for herself. In addition, she subverts her 
genteelly "feminine" works with personal representations which 
endure only in tracings, since her guilt about the impropriety of 
self-expression has caused her to efface her private drawings just 
as it has led her to efface herself. 

It is significant, moreover, that the sketch on the other side of 
Helen's canvas depicts the face of the Byronically brooding, sensual 
Arthur Huntingdon, the man she finally decides to marry. Fatally 
attracted by the energy and freedom that she desires as an escape 
from the constraints of her own life, Helen pays for her initial at- 
traction by watching her husband metamorphose from a fallen 



82 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

angel into a fiend, as he relentlessly and self-destructively pursues 
a diabolical career of gaming, whoring, and drinking. In this respect, 
too, Helen is prototypical, since we shall see that women artists are 
repeatedly attracted to the Satanic/Byronic hero even while they 
try to resist the sexual submission exacted by this oppressive younger 
son who seems, at first, so like a brother or a double. From Jane 
Austen, who almost obsessively rejected this figure, to Mary Shelley, 
the Brontes, and George Eliot, all of whom identified with his fierce 
presumption, women writers develop a subversive tradition that has 
a unique relationship to the Romantic ethos of revolt. 

What distinguishes Helen Graham (and all the women authors 
who resemble her) from male Romantics, however, is precisely her 
anxiety about her own artistry, together with the duplicity that 
anxiety necessitates. Even when she becomes a professional artist, 
Helen continues to fear the social implications of her vocation. 
Associating female creativity with freedom from male domination, 
and dreading the misogynistic censure of her community, she pro- 
duces art that at least partly hides her experience of her actual place 
in the world. Because her audience potentially includes the man 
from whom she is trying to escape, she must balance her need to 
paint her own condition against her need to circumvent detection. 
Her strained relationship to her art is thus determined almost entirely 
by her gender, so that from both her anxieties and her strategies for 
overcoming them we can extrapolate a number of the crucial ways 
in which women's art has been radically qualified by their femaleness. 

As we shall see, Anne Bronte's sister Charlotte depicts similar 
anxieties and similar strategies for overcoming anxiety in the careers 
of all the female artists who appear in her novels. From timid Frances 
Henri to demure Jane Eyre, from mysterious Lucia to flamboyant 
Vashti, Bronte's women artists withdraw behind their art even while 
they assert themselves through it, as if deliberately adopting Helen 
Graham's duplicitous techniques of self-expression. For the great 
women writers of the past two centuries are linked by the ingenuity 
with which all, while no one was really looking, danced out of the 
debilitating looking glass of the male text into the health of female 
authority. Tracing subversive pictures behind socially acceptable 
facades, they managed to appear to dissociate themselves from their 
own revolutionary impulses even while passionately enacting such 



Infection in the Sentence 83 

impulses. Articulating the "private lives of one half of humanity," 
their fiction and poetry both records and transcends the struggle of 
what Marge Piercy has called "Unlearning to not speak."* 2 

We must not forget, however, that to hide behind the facade of art, 
even for so crucial a process as "Unlearning to not speak," is still to be 
hidden, to be confined : to be secret is to be secreted. In a poignant 
and perceptive poem to Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich has noted 
that in her "half-cracked way" Dickinson chose "silence for enter- 
tainment, / chose to have it out at last /on [her] own premises."* 8 
This is what Jane Austen, too, chose to do when she ironically defined 
her work-space as two inches of ivory, what Emily Bronte chose to do 
when she hid her poems in kitchen cabinets (and perhaps destroyed 
her Gondal stories), what Christina Rossetti chose when she elected 
an art that glorified the religious constrictions of the "convent 
threshold." Rich's crucial pun on the word premises returns us, there- 
fore, to the confinement of these women, a confinement that was 
inescapable for them even at their moments of greatest triumph, 
a confinement that was implicit in their secretness. This confinement 
was both literal and figurative. Literally, women like Dickinson, 
Bronte, and Rossetti were imprisoned in their homes, their father's 
houses; indeed, almost all nineteenth-century women were in some 
sense imprisoned in men's houses. Figuratively, such women were, 
as we have seen, locked into male texts, texts from which they could 
escape only through ingenuity and indirection. It is not surprising, 
then, that spatial imagery of enclosure and escape, elaborated with 
what frequently becomes obsessive intensity, characterizes much of 
their writing. 

In fact, anxieties about space sometimes seem to dominate the 
literature of both nineteenth-century women and their twentieth- 
century descendants. In the genre Ellen Moers has recently called 
"female Gothic,"* 4 for instance, heroines who characteristically 
inhabit mysteriously intricate or uncomfortably stifling houses are 
often seen as captured, fettered, trapped, even buried alive. But 
other kinds of works by women — novels of manners, domestic tales, 
lyric poems — also show the same concern with spatial constricuons. 
From Ann Radcliffe's melodramatic dungeons to Jane Austen's 



84 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

mirrored parlors, from Charlotte Bronte's haunted garrets to Emily 
Bronte's coffin-shaped beds, imagery of enclosure reflects the woman 
writer's own discomfort, her sense of powerlessness, her fear that she 
inhabits alien and incomprehensible places. Indeed, it reflects her 
growing suspicion that what the nineteenth century called "woman's 
place" is itself irrational and strange. Moreover, from Emily Dickin- 
son's haunted chambers to H. D.'s tightly shut sea-shells and Sylvia 
Plath's grave-caves, imagery of entrapment expresses the woman 
writer's sense that she has been dispossessed precisely because she is 
so thoroughly possessed — and possessed in every sense of the word. 
The opening stanzas of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's punningly 
titled "In Duty Bound" show how inevitable it was for a female 
artist to translate into spadal terms her despair at the spiritual 
constrictions of what Gilman ironically called "home comfort." 

In duty bound, a life hemmed in, 
Whichever way the spirit turns to look ; 

No chance of breaking out, except by sin ; 
Not even room to shirk — 
Simply to live, and work. 

An obligation preimposed, unsought, 

Yet binding with the force of natural law; 

The pressure of antagonistic thought; 
Aching within, each hour, 
A sense of wasting power. 

A house with roof so darkly low 

The heavy rafters shut the sunlight out; 

One cannot stand erect without a blow; 
Until the soul inside 
Cries for a grave — more wide.'* 

Literally confined to the house, figuratively confined to a single 
"place," enclosed in parlors and encased in texts, imprisoned in 
kitchens and enshrined in stanzas, women artists naturally found 
themselves describing dark interiors and confusing their sense that 
they were house-bound with their rebellion against being duty bound. 
The same connections Gilman's poem made in the nineteenth century 
had after all been made by Anne Finch in the eighteenth, when she 



Infection in the Sentence 85 

complained that women who wanted to write poetry were scornfully 
told that "the dull mannage of a servile house" was their "outmost 
art and use." Inevitably, then, since they were trapped in so many 
ways in the architecture — both the houses and the institutions — of 
patriarchy, women expressed their anxiety of authorship by com- 
paring their "presumptuous" literary ambitions with the domestic 
accomplishments that had been prescribed for them. Inevitably, 
too, they expressed their claustrophobic rage by enacting rebellious 
escapes. 

Dramatizations of imprisonment and escape are so all-pervasive 
in nineteenth-century literature by women that we believe they 
represent a uniquely female tradition in this period. Interestingly, 
though works in this tradition generally begin by using houses as 
primary symbols of female imprisonment, they also use much of the 
other paraphernalia of "woman's place" to enact their central 
symbolic drama of enclosure and escape. Ladylike veils and costumes, 
mirrors, paintings, statues, locked cabinets, drawers, trunks, strong- 
boxes, and other domestic furnishing appear and reappear in female 
novels and poems throughout the nineteenth century and on into 
the twentieth to signify the woman writer's sense that, as Emily 
Dickinson put it, her "life" has been "shaven and fitted to a frame," 
a confinement she can only tolerate by believing that "the soul 
has moments of escape / When bursting all the doors / She dances 
like a bomb abroad."* 4 Significantly, too, the explosive violence of 
these "moments of escape" that women writers continually imagine 
for themselves returns us to the phenomenon of the mad double so 
many of these women have projected into their works. For it is, after 
all, through the violence of the double that the female author enacts 
her own raging desire to escape male houses and male texts, while 
at the same time it is through the double's violence that this anxious 
author articulates for herself the costly destructiveness of anger 
repressed until it can no longer be contained. 

As we shall see, therefore, infection continually breeds in the 
sentences of women whose writing obsessively enacts this drama of 
enclosure and escape. Specifically, what we have called the distinc- 
tively female diseases of anorexia and agoraphobia are closely associ- 
ated with this dramatic/thematic pattern. Defining themselves as 
prisoners of their own gender, for instance, women frequently create 



86 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

characters who attempt to escape, if only into nothingness, through 
the suicidal self-starvation of anorexia. Similarly, in a metaphorical 
elaboration of bulimia, the disease of overeating which is anorexia's 
complement and mirror-image (as Marlene Boskind-Lodahl has 
recently shown)," women writers often envision an "outbreak" 
that transforms their characters into huge and powerful monsters. 
More obviously, agoraphobia and its complementary opposite, 
claustrophobia, are by definition associated with the spatial imagery 
through which these poets and novelists express their feelings of social 
confinement and their yearning for spiritual escape. The paradig- 
matic female story, therefore — the story such angels in the house 
of literature as Goethe's Makarie and Patmore's Honoria were in 
effect "forbidden" to tell — is frequently an arrangement of the 
elements most readers will readily remember from Charlotte Bronte's 
Jane Eyre. Examining the psychosocial implications of a "haunted" 
ancestral mansion, such a tale explores the tension between parlor 
and atdc, the psychic split between the lady who submits to male 
dicta and the lunatic who rebels. But in examining these matters 
the paradigmatic female story inevitably considers also the equally 
uncomfortable spatial opdons of expulsion into the cold outside or 
suffocation in the hot indoors, and in addition it often embodies an 
obsessive anxiety both about starvation to the point of disappearance 
and about monstrous inhabitation. 

Many nineteenth-century male writers also, of course, used im- 
agery of enclosure and escape to make deeply felt points about the 
relationship of the individual and society. Dickens and Poe, for 
instance, on opposite sides of the Atlandc, wrote of prisons, cages, 
tombs, and cellars in similar ways and for similar reasons. Still, the 
male writer is so much more comfortable with his literary role that 
he can usually elaborate upon his visionary theme more consciously 
and objectively than the female writer can. The distinction between 
male and female images of imprisonment is — and always has been — 
a distinction between, on the one hand, that which is both meta- 
physical and metaphorical, and on the other hand, that which is 
social and actual. Sleeping in his coffin, the seventeenth-century poet 
John Donne was piously rehearsing the constraints of the grave in 
advance, but the nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson, in purdah 
in her white dress, was anxiously living those constraints in the present. 



Infection in the Sentence 87 

Imagining himself buried alive in tombs and cellars, Edgar Allan 
Poe was letting his mind poetically wander into the deepest recesses 
of his own psyche, but Dickinson, reporting that "I do not cross my 
Father's ground to any house in town," was recording a real, self- 
willed, self-burial. Similarly, when Byron's Prisoner of Chillon notes 
that "my very chains and I grew friends," the poet himself is making 
an epistemological point about the nature of the human mind, as 
well as a political point about the tyranny of the state. But when 
Rose Yorke in Shirley describes Caroline Helstone as living the life 
of a toad enclosed in a block of marble, Charlotte Bronte is speaking 
through her about her own deprived and constricted life, and its 
real conditions." 

Thus, though most male metaphors of imprisonment have obvious 
implications in common (and many can be traced back to traditional 
images used by, say, Shakespeare and Plato), such metaphors may 
have very different aesthetic functions and philosophical messages 
in different male literary works. Wordsworth's prison-house in the 
"Intimations" ode serves a purpose quite unlike that served by the 
jails in Dickens's novels. Coleridge's twice-five miles of visionary 
greenery ought not to be confused with Keats's vale of soul-making, 
and the escape of Tennyson's Art from her Palace should not be 
identified with the resurrection of Poe's Ligeia. Women authors, 
however, reflect the literal reality of their own confinement in the 
constraints they depict, and so all at least begin with the same 
unconscious or conscious purpose in employing such spatial imagery. 
Recording their own distinctively female experience, they are secretly 
working through and within the conventions of literary texts to 
define their own lives. 

While some male authors also use such imagery for implicitly or 
explicitly confessional projects, women seem forced to live more 
intimately with the metaphors they have created to solve the "prob- 
lem" of their fall. At least one critic does deal not only with such 
images but with their psychological meaning as they accrue around 
houses. Noting in The Poetics of Space that "the house image would 
appear to have become the topography of our inmost being," Gaston 
Bachelard shows the ways in which houses, nests, shells, and ward- 
robes are in us as much as we are in them.** What is significant from 
our point of view, however, is the extraordinary discrepancy between 



88 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

the almost consistently "felicitous space" he discusses and the negative 
space we have found. Clearly, for Bachelard the protective asylum 
of the house is closely associated with its maternal features, and to 
this extent he is following the work done on dream symbolism by 
Freud and on female inner space by Erikson. It seems clear too, 
however, that such symbolism must inevitably have very different 
implications for male critics and for female authors. 

Women themselves have often, of course, been described or imag- 
ined as houses. Most recently Erik Erikson advanced his controversial 
theory of female "inner space" in an effort to account for little girls' 
interest in domestic enclosures. But in medieval times, as if to 
anticipate Erikson, statues of the Madonna were made to open up 
and reveal the holy family hidden in the Virgin's inner space. The 
female womb has certainly, always and everywhere, been a child's 
first and most satisfying house, a source of food and dark security, 
and therefore a mythic paradise imaged over and over again in 
sacred caves, secret shrines, consecrated huts. Yet for many a woman 
writer these ancient associations of house and self seem mainly to 
have strengthened the anxiety about enclosure which she projected 
into her art. Disturbed by the real physiological prospect of enclosing 
an unknown part of herself that is somehow also not herself, the female 
artist may, like Mary Shelley, conflate anxieties about maternity 
with anxieties about literary creativity. Alternatively, troubled by 
the anatomical "emptiness" of spinsterhood, she may, like Emily 
Dickinson, fear the inhabitations of nothingness and death, the 
transformation of womb into tomb. Moreover, conditioned to believe 
that as a house she is herself owned (and ought to be inhabited) by 
a man, she may once again but for yet another reason see herself as 
inescapably an object. In other words, even if she does not experience 
her womb as a kind of tomb or perceive her child's occupation of her 
house/body as depersonalizing, she may recognize that in an essential 
way she has been defined simply by her purely biological usefulness 
to her species. 

To become literally a house, after all, is to be denied the hope of 
that spiritual transcendence of the body which, as Simone de Beauvoir 
has argued, is what makes humanity distinctively human. Thus, to 
be confined in childbirth (and significantly "confinement" was the 
key nineteenth-century term for what we would now, just as signi- 



Infection in the Sentence 89 

ficantly, call "delivery") is in a way just as problematical as to be 
confined in a house or prison. Indeed, it might well seem to the literary 
woman that, just as ontogeny may be said to recapitulate phylog- 
eny, the confinement of pregnancy replicates the confinement of 
society. For even if she is only metaphorically denied transcendence, 
the woman writer who perceives the implications of the house/body 
equation must unconsciously realize that such a trope does not just 
"place" her in a glass coffin, it transforms her into a version of the 
glass coffin herself. There is a sense, therefore, in which, confined in 
such a network of metaphors, what Adrienne Rich has called a 
"thinking woman" might inevitably feel that now she has been 
imprisoned within her own alien and loathsome body. 70 Once again, 
in other words, she has become not only a prisoner but a monster. 

As if to comment on the unity of all these points — on, that is, the 
anxiety-inducing connections between what women writers tend to 
see as their parallel confinements in texts, houses, and maternal 
female bodies — Charlotte Perkins Gilman brought them all together 
in 1890 in a striking story of female confinement and escape, a 
paradigmatic tale which (like Jane Eyre) seems to tell the story that 
all literary women would tell if they could speak their "speechless 
woe." "The Yellow Wallpaper," which Gilman herself called "a 
description of a case of nervous breakdown," recounts in the first 
person the experiences of a woman who is evidently suffering from 
a severe postpartum psychosis. 71 Her husband, a censorious and 
paternalistic physician, is treating her according to methods by which 
S. Weir Mitchell, a famous "nerve specialist," treated Gilman herself 
for a similar problem. He has confined her to a large garret room in 
an "ancestral hall" he has rented, and he has forbidden her to touch 
pen to paper until she is well again, for he feels, says the narrator, 
"that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a 
nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited 
fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the 
tendency" (15-16). 

The cure, of course, is worse than the disease, for the sick woman's 
mental condition deteriorates rapidly. "I think sometimes that if I 
were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of 
ideas and rest me," she remarks, but literally confined in a room she 
thinks is a one-time nursery because it has "rings and things" in the 



90 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

walls, she is literally locked away from creativity. The "rings and 
things," although reminiscent of children's gymnastic equipment, are 
really the paraphernalia of confinement, like the gate at the head of 
the stairs, instruments that definitively indicate her imprisonment. 
Even more tormenting, however, is the room's wallpaper: a sul- 
phurous yellow paper, torn off in spots, and patterned with "lame 
uncertain curves" that "plunge offat outrageous angles" and "destroy 
themselves in unheard of contradictions." Ancient, smoldering, "un- 
clean" as the oppressive structures of the society in which she finds 
herself, this paper surrounds the narrator like an inexplicable text, 
censorious and overwhelming as her physician husband, haunting 
as the "hereditary estate" in which she is trying to survive. Inevitably 
she studies its suicidal implications — and inevitably, because of her 
"imaginative power and habit of story-making," she revises it, 
projecting her own passion for escape into its otherwise incomprehen- 
sible hieroglyphics. "This wall-paper," she decides, at a key point 
in her story, 

has a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly 
irritating one, for you can only see it in certain fights, and not 
clearly then. 

But in the places where it isn't faded and where the sun is 
just so — I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, 
that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous 
front design. [18] 

As time passes, this figure concealed behind what corresponds (in 
terms of what we have been discussing) to the facade of the patriarchal 
text becomes clearer and clearer. By moonlight the pattern of the 
wallpaper "becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the 
woman behind it is as plain as can be." And eventually, as the 
narrator sinks more deeply into what the world calls madness, the 
terrifying implications of both the paper and the figure imprisoned 
behind the paper begin to permeate — that is, to haunt — the rented 
ancestral mansion in which she and her husband are immured. The 
"yellow smell" of the paper "creeps all over the house," drenching 
every room in its subtle aroma of decay. And the woman creeps too — 
through the house, in the house, and out of the house, in the garden 
and "on that long road under the trees." Sometimes, indeed, the 



Infection in the Sentence 91 

narrator confesses, "I think there are a great many women" both 
behind the paper and creeping in the garden, 

and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her 
crawling shakes [the paper] all over. . . . And she is all the time 
trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that 
pattern — it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many 
heads. [30] 

Eventually it becomes obvious to both reader and narrator that 
the figure creeping through and behind the wallpaper is both the 
narrator and the narrator's double. By the end of the story, moreover, 
the narrator has enabled this double to escape from her textual/archi- 
tectural confinement: "I pulled and she shook, I shook and she 
pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper." 
Is the message of the tale's conclusion mere madness? Certainly the 
righteous Doctor John — whose name links him to the anti-hero of 
Charlotte Bronte's Villette — has been temporarily defeated, or at 
least momentarily stunned. "Now why should that man have 
fainted?" the narrator ironically asks as she creeps around her attic. 
But John's unmasculine swoon of surprise is the least of the triumphs 
Gilman imagines for her madwoman. More significant are the 
madwoman's own imaginings and creations, mirages of health and 
freedom with which her author endows her like a fairy godmother 
showering gold on a sleeping heroine. The woman from behind the 
wallpaper creeps away, for instance, creeps fast and far on the long 
road, in broad daylight. "I have watched her sometimes away off 
in the open country," says the narrator, "creeping as fast as a cloud 
shadow in a high wind." 

Indistinct and yet rapid, barely perceptible but inexorable, the 
progress of that cloud shadow is not unlike the progress of nineteenth- 
century literary women out of the texts defined by patriarchal poetics 
into the open spaces of their own authority. That such an escape from 
the numb world behind the patterned walls of the text was a flight 
from dis-ease into health was quite clear to Gilman herself. When 
"The Yellow Wallpaper" was published she sent it to Weir Mitchell, 
whose strictures had kept her from attempting the pen during her 
own breakdown, thereby aggravating her illness, and she was de- 
lighted to learn, years later, that "he had changed his treatment of 



92 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

nervous prostration since reading" her story. "If that is a fact," she 
declared, "I have not lived in vain." 72 Because she was a rebellious 
feminist besides being a medical iconoclast, we can be sure that 
Gilman did not think of this triumph of hers in narrowly therapeutic 
terms. Because she knew, with Emily Dickinson, that "Infection in 
the sentence breeds," she knew that the cure for female despair must 
be spiritual as well as physical, aesthetic as well as social. What "The 
Yellow Wallpaper" shows she knew, too, is that even when a sup- 
posedly "mad" woman has been sentenced to imprisonment in the 
"infected" house of her own body, she may discover that, as Sylvia 
Plath was to put it seventy years later, she has "a self to recover, 
a queen."' 3 




The Parables of the Cave 



"Next then," I said, "take the following parable of education and 
ignorance as a picture of the condition of our nature. Imagine 
mankind as dwelling in an underground cave ..." 

—Plato 

Where are the songs I used to know, 

Where are the notes I used to sing? 
I have forgotten everything 

I used to know so long ago. 

— Christina Rossetti 

there came upon me an overshadowing bright Cloud, and in 

the midst of it the figure of a Woman, most richly adorned with 
transparent Gold, her Hair hanging down, and her Face as the 
terrible Crystal for brightness [and] immediately this Voice came, 
saying, Behold I am God's Eternal Virgin-Wisdom ... I am to 
unseal the Treasures of God's deep Wisdom unto thee, and will be as 
Rebecca was unto Jacob, a true Natural Mother; for out of my 
Womb thou shah be brought forth after the manner of a Spirit, 
Conceived and Born again. 

— Jane Lead 



Although Plato does not seem to have thought much about this 
point, a cave is — as Freud pointed out — a female place, a womb- 
shaped enclosure, a house of earth, secret and often sacred. 1 To this 
shrine the initiate comes to hear the voices of darkness, the wisdom 
of inwardness. In this prison the slave is immured, the virgin sacri- 
ficed, the priestess abandoned. "We have put her living in the tomb !" 
Poe's paradigmatic exclamation of horror, with its shadow of solips- 

93 



94 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

ism, summarizes the Victorian shudder of disgust at the thought of 
cavern confrontations and the evils they might reveal — the suffo- 
cation, the "black bat airs," the vampirism, the chaos of what 
Victor Frankenstein calls "filthy creation." But despite its melo- 
drama, Poe's remark summarizes too (even if unintentionally) the 
plight of the woman in patriarchal culture, the woman whose cave- 
shaped anatomy is her destiny. Not just, like Plato's cave-dweller, 
a prisoner of Nature, this woman is a prisoner of her own nature, 
a prisoner in the "grave cave" of immanence which she transforms 
into a vaporous Cave of Spleen.* 

In this regard, an anecdote of Simone de Beauvoir's forms a sort 
of counter-parable to Plato's: 

I recall seeing in a primitive village of Tunisia a subterranean 
cavern in which four women were squatting: the old one-eyed 
and toothless wife, her face horribly devastated, was cooking 
dough on a small brazier in the midst of an acrid smoke ; two 
wives somewhat younger, but almost as disfigured, were lulling 
children in their arms — one was giving suck; seated before a 
loom, a young idol magnificently decked out in silk, gold, and 
silver was knotting threads of wool. As I left this gloomy cave — 
kingdom of immanence, womb, and tomb — in the corridor 
leading upward toward the light of day I passed the male, 
dressed in white, well groomed, smiling, sunny. He was returning 
from the marketplace, where he had discussed world affairs 
with other men ; he would pass some hours in this retreat of his 
at the heart of the vast universe to which he belonged, from 
which he was not separated. For the withered old women, for 
the young wife doomed to the same rapid decay, there was no 
universe other than the smoky cave, whence they emerged 
only at night, silent and veiled. 3 

Destroyed by traditional female activities — cooking, nursing, nee- 
dling, knotting — which ought to have given them life as they them- 
selves give life to men, the women of this underground harem are 
obviously buried in (and by) patriarchal definitions of their sexuality. 
Here is immanence with no hope of transcendence, nature seduced 
and betrayed by culture, enclosure without any possibility of escape. 
Or so it would seem. 



The Parables of the Cave 95 

Yet the womb-shaped cave is also the place of female power, the 
umbilicus mundi, one of the great antechambers of the mysteries of 
transformation. As herself a kind of cave, every woman might seem 
to have the cave's metaphorical power of annihilation, the power — 
as de Beauvoir puts it elsewhere — of "night in the entrails of the 
earth," for "in many a legend," she notes, "we see the hero lost 
forever as he falls back into the maternal shadows — cave, abyss, 
hell." 4 At the same time, as herself a fated inhabitant of that earth- 
cave of immanence in which de Beauvoir's Tunisian women were 
trapped, every woman might seem to have metaphorical access to 
the dark knowledge buried in caves. Summarizing the characteristics 
of those female "great weavers" who determine destiny — Norns, 
Fates, priestesses of Demeter, prophetesses of Gaea — Helen Diner 
points out that "all knowledge of Fate comes from the female depths; 
none of the surface powers knows it. Whoever wants to know about 
Fate must go down to the woman," meaning the Great Mother, the 
Weaver Woman who weaves "the world tapestry out of genesis and 
demise" in her cave of power. Yet individual women are imprisoned 
in, not empowered by, such caves, like Blake's symbolic worms, 
"Weaving to Dreams the Sexual strife/And weeping over the Web 
of life."* How, therefore, does any woman — but especially a literary 
woman, who thinks in images — reconcile the cave's negative meta- 
phoric potential with its positive mythic possibilities? Immobilized 
and half-blinded in Plato's cave, how does such a woman distinguish 
what she is from what she sees, her real creative essence from the 
unreal cutpaper shadows the cavern-master claims as reality? 

In a fictionalized "Author's Introduction" to The Last Man (1826) 
Mary Shelley tells another story about a cave, a story which implicitly 
answers these questions and which, therefore, constitutes yet a third 
parable of the cave. In 1818, she begins, she and "a friend" visited 
what was said to be "the gloomy cavern of the Cumaean Sibyl." 
Entering a mysterious, almost inaccessible chamber, they found 
"piles of leaves, fragments of bark, and a white filmy substance 
resembling the inner part of the green hood which shelters the grain 
of the unripe Indian corn." At first, Shelley confesses, she and her 
male companion (Percy Shelley) were baffled by this discovery, but 
"At length, my friend . . . exclaimed 'This is the Sibyl's cave; these 
are sibylline leaves!'" Her account continues as follows. 



96 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

On examination, we found that all the leaves, bark, and other 
substances were traced with written characters. What appeared 
to us more astonishing, was that these writings were expressed 
in various languages : some unknown to my companion . . . some 
... in modern dialects. . . . We could make out little by the dim 
light, but they seemed to contain prophecies, detailed relations 
of events but lately passed; names . . . and often exclamations of 
exultation or woe . . . were traced on their thin scant pages. . . . 
We made a hasty selection of such of the leaves, whose writing 
one, at least of us could understand, and then . . . bade adieu 
to the dim hypaethric cavern. . . . Since that period ... I have 
been employed in deciphering these sacred remains. ... I present 
the public with my latest discoveries in the slight Sibylline pages. 
Scattered and unconnected as they were, I have been obliged 
to . . . model the work into a consistent form. But the main 
substance rests on the divine intuitions which the Cumaean 
damsel obtained from heaven.* 

Every feature of this cave journey is significant, especially for the 
feminist critic who seeks to understand the meaning not just of male 
but also of female parables of the cave. 

To begin with, the sad fact that not Mary Shelley but her male 
companion is able to recognize the Sibyl's cave and readily to deci- 
pher some of the difficult languages in which the sibylline leaves are 
written suggests the woman writer's own anxieties about her equi- 
vocal position in a patriarchal literary culture which often seems to 
her to enact strange rituals and speak in unknown tongues. The 
woman may be the cave, but — so Mary Shelley's hesitant response 
suggests — it is the man who knows the cave, who analyzes its meaning, 
who (like Plato) authors its primary parables, and who even interprets 
its language, as Gerard Manley Hopkins, that apostle of aesthetic 
virility, was to do more than half a century after the publication of 
The Last Man, in his sonnet "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves." 

Yet the cave is a female space and it belonged to a female hiero- 
phant, the lost Sibyl, the prophetess who inscribed her "divine 
intuitions" on tender leaves and fragments of delicate bark. For Mary 
Shelley, therefore, it is intimately connected with both her own 
artistic authority and her own power of self-creation. A male poet 



The Parables of the Cave 97 

or instructor may guide her to this place, but, as she herself realizes, 
she and she alone can effectively reconstruct the scattered truth of 
the Sibyl's leaves. Literally the daughter of a dead and dishonored 
mother — the powerful feminist Mary Wollstonecraft — Mary Shelley 
portrays herself in this parable as figuratively the daughter of the 
vanished Sybil, the primordial prophetess who mythically conceived 
all women artists. 

That the Sibyl's leaves are now scattered, fragmented, barely com- 
prehensible is thus the central problem Shelley faces in her own art. 
Earlier in her introduction, she notes that finding the cave was a 
preliminary problem. She and her companion were misled and mis- 
directed by native guides, she tells us; left alone in one chamber 
while the guides went for new torches, they "lost" their way in the 
darkness; ascending in the "wrong" direction, they accidentally 
stumbled upon the true cave. But the difficulty of this initial discovery 
merely foreshadows the difficulty of the crucial task of reconstruction, 
as Shelley shows. For just as the path to the Sibyl's cave has been 
forgotten, the coherent truth of her leaves has been shattered and 
scattered, the body of her art dismembered, and, like Anne Finch, 
she has become a sort of "Cypher," powerless and enigmatic. But 
while the way to the cave can be "remembered" by accident, the 
whole meaning of the sibylline leaves can only be re-membered 
through painstaking labor: translation, transcription, and stitchery, 
re-vision and re-creation. 

The specifically sexual texture of these sibylline documents, these 
scattered leaves and leavings, adds to their profound importance for 
women. Working on leaves, bark, and "a white filmy substance," 
the Sibyl literally wrote, and wrote upon, the Book of Nature. She 
had, in other words, a goddess's power of maternal creativity, the 
sexual/artistic strength that is the female equivalent of the male 
potential for literary paternity. In her "dim hypaethric cavern" — a 
dim sea-cave that was nevertheless open to the sky — she received her 
"divine intuitions" through "an aperture" in the "arched dome-like 
roof" which "let in the light of heaven." On her "raised seat of stone, 
about the size of a Grecian couch," she conceived her art, inscribing 
it on leaves and bark from the green world outside. And so fierce are 
her verses, so truthful her "poetic rhapsodies," that even in deci- 
phering them Shelley exclaims that she feels herself "taken . . . out 



98 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

of a world, which has averted its once benignant face from me, to 
one glowing with imagination and power." For in recovering and 
reconstructing the Sibyl's scattered artistic/sexual energy, Shelley 
comes to recognize that she is discovering and creating — literally 
de-ciphering — her own creative power. "Sometimes I have thought," 
she modestly confesses, "that, obscure and chaotic as they are, [these 
translations from the Sibyl's leaves] owe their present form to me, 
their decipherer. As if we should give to another artist, the painted 
fragments which form the mosaic copy of Raphael's Transfiguration 
in St. Peter's; he would put them together in a form, whose mode 
would be fashioned by his own peculiar mind and talent." 7 

Given all these implications and overtones, it seems to us that the 
submerged message of Shelley's parable of the cave forms in itself a 
fourth parable in the series we have been discussing. This last parable 
is the story of the woman artist who enters the cavern of her own 
mind and finds there the scattered leaves not only of her own power 
but of the tradition which might have generated that power. The 
body of her precursor's art, and thus the body of her own art, lies 
in pieces around her, dismembered, dis-remembered, disintegrated. 
How can she remember it and become a member of it, join it and 
rejoin it, integrate it and in doing so achieve her own integrity, her 
own selfhood? Surrounded by the ruins of her own tradition, the 
leavings and unleavings of her spiritual mother's art, she feels — as 
we noted earlier — like someone suffering from amnesia. Not only 
did she fail to recognize — that is, to remember — the cavern itself, 
she no longer knows its languages, its messages, its forms. With 
Christina Rossetti, she wonders once again "Where are the songs I 
used to know, /Where are the notes I used to sing?" Bewildered by 
the incoherence of the fragments she confronts, she cannot help 
deciding that "I have forgotten everything /I used to know so long 
ago." 

But it is possible, as Mary Shelley's introduction tells us, for the 
woman poet to reconstruct the shattered tradition that is her matri- 
lineal heritage. Her trip into the cavern of her own mind, despite 
(or perhaps because of) its falls in darkness, its stumblings, its anxious 
wanderings, begins the process of re-membering. Even her dialogue 
with the Romantic poet who guides her (in Mary Shelley's version 
of the parable) proves useful, for, as Northrop Frye has argued, a 



The Parables of the Cave 99 

revolutionary "mother-goddessmyth" which allows power and digni- 
ty to women — a myth which is anti-hierarchical, a myth which would 
liberate the energy of all living creatures — "gained ground" in the 
Romantic period. 8 Finally, the sibylline messages themselves speak 
to her, and in speaking to her they both enable her to speak for 
herself and empower her to speak for the Sibyl. Going "down to the 
woman" of Fate whom Helen Diner describes, the woman writer 
recovers herself as a woman of art. Thus, where the traditional male 
hero makes his "night sea journey" to the center of the earth, the 
bottom of the mere, the belly of the whale, to slay or be slain by the 
dragons of darkness, the female artist makes her journey into what 
Adrienne Rich has called "the cratered night of female memory" to 
revitalize the darkness, to retrieve what has been lost, to regenerate, 
reconceive, and give birth.' 

What she gives birth to is in a sense her own mother goddess and 
her own mother land. In this parable of the cave it is not the male 
god Osiris who has been torn apart but his sister, Isis, who has been 
dismembered and destroyed. Similarly, it is not the male poet 
Orpheus whose catastrophe we are confronting but his lost bride, 
Eurydice, whom we find abandoned in the labyrinthine caverns of 
Hades. Or to put the point another way, this parable suggests that 
(as the poet H. D. knew) the traditional figure of Isis in search of 
Osiris is really a figure of Isis in search of herself, and the betrayed 
Eurydice is really (like Virginia Woolf s "Judith Shakespeare" ) the 
woman poet who never arose from the prison of her "grave cave." 
Reconstructing Isis and Eurydice, then, the woman artist redefines 
and recovers the lost Atlantis of her literary heritage, the sunken 
continent whose wholeness once encompassed and explained all 
those figures on the horizon who now seem "odd," fragmentary, 
incomplete — the novelists historians call "singular anomalies," the 
poets critics call "poetesses," the revolutionary artists patriarchal 
poets see as "unsexed," monstrous, grotesque. Remembered by the 
community of which they are and were members, such figures gain 
their full authority, and their visions begin to seem like conceptions 
as powerful as the Sibyl's were. Emily Bronte's passionate A. G. A., 
Jane Lead's Sophia, H. D.'s bona dea all have a place in this risen 
Atlantis which is their mother country, and Jane Eyre's friendship 
for Diana and Mary Rivers, Aurora Leigh's love of her Italian 



100 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

mother land together with her dream of a new Jerusalem, Emily 
Dickinson's "mystic green" where women "live aloud," and George 
Eliot's concept of sisterhood — all these visions and re-visions help 
define the Utopian boundaries of the resurrected continent. 

That women have translated their yearnings for motherly or 
sisterly precursors into visions of such a land is as clear as it is certain 
that this metaphoric land, like the Sibyl's leaves and the woman 
writer's power, has been shattered and scattered. Emily Dickinson, 
a woman artist whose own carefully sewn together "packets" of 
poetry were — ironically enough — to be fragmented by male editors 
and female heirs, projected her yearning for this lost female home 
into the figure of a caged (and female) leopard. Her visionary nos- 
talgia demonstrates that at times the memory of this Atlantis could 
be as painful for women writers as amnesia about it often was. 
"Civilization — spurns — the Leopard!" she noted, commenting that 
"Deserts — never rebuked her Satin — . . . [for] This was the Leopard's 
nature — Signor — /Need — a keeper — frown?" and adding, poi- 
gnantly, that we should 

Pity — the Pard — that left her Asia — 
Memories — of Palm — 
Cannot be stifled — with Narcotic — 
Nor suppressed — with Balm — ,0 

Similarly, though she was ostensibly using the symbolism of tradi- 
tional religion, Christina Rossetti described her pained yearning for 
a lost, visionary continent like Dickinson's "Asia" in a poem whose 
title — "Mother Country" — openly acknowledges the real subject: 

Oh what is that country 

And where can it be 
Not mine own country, 

But dearer far to me? 

Yet mine own country, 

If I one day may see 
Its spices and cedars, 

Its gold and ivory. 

As I lie dreaming 
It rises, that land; 



The Parables of the Cave 101 

There rises before me 

Its green golden strand, 
With the bowing cedars 

And the shining sand ; 
It sparkles and flashes 

Like a shaken brand. 11 

The ambiguities with which Rossetti describes her own relationship 
to this land ("Not mine own . . . But dearer far") reflect the uncer- 
tainty of the self-definition upon which her vision depends. Is a 
woman's mother country her "own"? Has Mary Shelley a "right" to 
the Sibyl's leaves? Through what structure of definitions and quali- 
fications can the female artist claim her matrilineal heritage, her 
birthright of that power which, as Annie Gottlieb's dream asserted, 
is important to her because of her mother? Despite these implicit 
questions, Rossetti admits that "As I lie dreaming /It rises that 
land" — rises, significantly, glittering and flashing "like a shaken 
brand," rises from "the cratered night of female memory," setting 
fire to the darkness, dispersing the shadows of the cavern, destroying 
the archaic structures which enclosed it in silence and gloom. 

There is a sense in which, for us, this book is a dream of the rising 
of Christina Rossetd's "mother country." And there is a sense in 
which it is an attempt at reconstructing the Sibyl's leaves, leaves 
which haunt us with the possibility that if we can piece together 
their fragments the parts will form a whole that tells the story of the 
career of a single woman ardst, a "mother of us all," as Gertrude 
Stein would put it, a woman whom patriarchal poetics dismembered 
and whom we have tried to remember. Detached from herself, 
silenced, subdued, this woman ardst tried in the beginning, as we 
shall see, to write like an angel in the house of fiction : with Jane 
Austen and Maria Edgeworth, she concealed her own truth behind 
a decorous and ladylike facade, scattering her real wishes to the 
winds or translating them into incomprehensible hieroglyphics. But 
as time passed and her cave-prison became more constricted, more 
claustrophobic, she "fell" into the gothic/Satanic mode and, with 
the Brontes and Mary Shelley, she planned mad or monstrous es- 
capes, then dizzily withdrew — with George Eliot and Emily Dickin- 
son — from those open spaces where the scorching presence of the 



102 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

patriarchal sun, whom Dickinson called "the man of noon," empha- 
sized her vulnerability. Since "Creation seemed a mighty Crack" to 
make her "visible," she took refuge again in the safety of the "dim 
hypaethric cavern" where she could be alone with herself, with a 
truth that was hers even in its fragmentation. 12 

Yet through all these stages of her history this mythic woman artist 
dreamed, like her sibylline ancestress, of a visionary future, a Utopian 
land in which she could be whole and energetic. As tense with 
longing as the giant "korl woman," a metal sculpture the man named 
Wolfe carves from flesh-colored pig "refuse" in Rebecca Harding 
Davis's Life in the Iron Mills, she turned with a "wild, eager face," 
with "the mad, half-despairing gesture of drowning," toward her 
half-conscious imagination of that future. Eventually she was to 
realize, with Adrienne Rich, that she was "reading the Parable of 
the Cave /while living in the cave"; with Sylvia Plath she was to 
decide that "I am a miner" surrounded by "tears /The earthen 
womb /Exudes from its dead boredom"; and like Plath she was to 
hang her cave "with roses," transfiguring it — as the Sibyl did — with 
artful foliage. 1 ' But her vision of self-creation was consistently the 
same vision of connection and resurrection. Like the rebirth of the 
drowned Atlantans in Ursula Le Guin's Utopian "The New Atlantis," 
this vision often began with an awakening in darkness, a dim aware- 
ness of "the whispering thunder from below," and a sense that even 
if "we could not answer, we knew because we heard, because we 
felt, because we wept, we knew that we were; and we remembered 
other voices." 14 Like Mary Shelley's piecing together of the Sybil's 
leaves, the vision often entailed a subversive transfiguration of those 
female arts to which de Beauvoir's cave-dwelling seamstresses were 
condemned into the powerful arts of the underground Weaver 
Woman, who uses her magical loom to weave a distinctively female 
"Tapestr[y] of Paradise." 15 And the fact that the cave is and was 
a place where such visions were possible is itself a sign of the power 
of the cave and a crucial message of the parable of the cave, a message 
to remind us that the cave is not just the place from which the past 
is retrieved but the place where the future is conceived, the "earthen 
womb" — or, as in Willa Cather's My Antonia, the "fruit cave" — from 
which the new land rises. 1 * 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning expiessed this final point for the later 



The Parables of the Cave 103 

nineteenth century, as if to carry Mary Shelley's allegorical narrative 
one step further. Describing a Utopian island paradise in which all 

creatures are "glad and safe No guns nor springes in my dream," 

she populated this peaceful land with visionary poets who have with- 
drawn to a life in dim sea caves — "I repair /To live within the 
caves: / And near me two or three may dwell, / Whom dreams fantas- 
tic please as well," she wrote, and then described her paradise more 
specifically : 

Long winding caverns, glittering far 

Into a crystal distance ! 
Through clefts of which, shall many a star 

Shine clear without resistance ! 
And carry down its rays the smell 
Of flowers above invisible. 17 

Here, she declared, her poets — implicitly female or at least matri- 
archal rather than patriarchal, worshipers of the Romantic mother 
goddess Frye describes — would create their own literary tradition 
through a re-vision of the high themes their famous "masculinist" 
counterparts had celebrated. 

. . . often, by the joy without 

And in us overcome, 
We, through our musing, shall let float 

Such poems — sitting dumb — 
As Pindar might have writ if he 
Had tended sheep in Arcady; 
Or Aeschylus — the pleasant fields 

He died in, longer knowing; 
Or Homer, had men's sins and shields 

Been lost in Meles flowing ; 
Or poet Plato, had the undim 
Unsetting Godlight broke on him. 

Poet Plato revised by a shining woman of noon, a magical woman 
like Jane Lead's "Eternal Virgin- Wisdom," with "her Face as the 
terrible Crystal for brightness!" In a sense that re-vision is the major 
subject of our book, just as it was the theme of Barrett Browning's 
earnest, female prayer: 



104 Toward a Feminist Poetics 

Choose me the cave most worthy choice, 

To make a place for prayer, 
And I will choose a praying voice 

To pour our spirits there. 

And the answer to Barrett Browning's prayer might have been given 
by the sibylline voice of Jane Lead's Virgin-Wisdom, or Sophia, the 
true goddess of the cave: "for out of my Womb thou shalt be brought 
forth after the manner of a Spirit, Conceived and Born again." 



II 

Inside the House of Fiction: 
Jane Austen's Tenants of 
Possibility 




Shut Up in Prose : 

Gender and Genre in Austen's 

Juvenilia 



"Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint — " 
— Sophia to Laura, Love ami Freindship 

They shut me up in Prose — 
As when a little Girl 
They put me in the Closet — 
Because they liked me "still" — 
— Emily Dickinson 

Can you be more confusing by laughing. Do say yes. 
We are extra. We have the reasonableness of a 
woman and we say we do not like a room. We wish 
we were married. 

— Gertrude Stein 

She is twelve years old and already her story is written in the heavens. 
She will discover it day after day without ever making it; she is 
curious but frightened when she contemplates this life, every stage 
of which is foreseen and toward which every day moves irresistibly. 

— Simone de Beauvoir 



Not a few of Jane Austen's personal acquaintances might have echoed 
Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges, who noticed that "she was fair and 
handsome, slight and elegant, but with cheeks a little too full," while 
"never suspectfing] she was an authoress." 1 For this novelist whose 
personal obscurity was more complete than that of any other famous 
writer was always quick to insist either on complete anonymity or on 
the propriety of her limited craft, her delight in delineating just "3 
or 4 Families in a Country Village." 2 With her self-deprecatory re- 
marks about her inability to join "strong manly, spirited sketches, 
full of Variety and Glow" with her "little bit (two Inches wide) of 

107 



108 Inside the House of Fiction 

Ivory," 3 Jane Austen perpetuated the belief among her friends that 
her art was just an accomplishment "by a lady," if anything "rather 
too light and bright and sparkling." 4 In this respect she resembled 
one of her favorite contemporaries, Mary Brunton, who would rather 
have "glidfed] through the world unknown" than been "suspected 
of literary airs — to be shunned, as literary women are, by the more 
pretending of their own sex, and abhorred, as literary women are, 
by the more pretending of the other! — my dear, I would sooner 
exhibit as a ropedancer."* 

Yet, decorous though they might first seem, Austen's self-effacing 
anonymity and her modest description of her miniaturist art also 
imply a criticism, even a rejection, of the world at large. For, as 
Gaston Bachelard explains, the miniature "allows us to be world 
conscious at slight risk." 6 While the creators of satirically conceived 
diminutive landscapes seem to see everything as small because they 
are themselves so grand, Austen's analogy for her art — her "little 
bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory" — suggests a fragility that reminds 
us of the risk and instability outside the fictional space. Besides seeing 
her art metaphorically, as her critics would too, in relation to female 
arts severely devalued until quite recently 7 (for painting on ivory was 
traditionally a "ladylike" occupation), Austen attempted through 
self-imposed novelistic limitations to define a secure place, even as 
she seemed to admit the impossibility of actually inhabiting such a 
small space with any degree of comfort. And always, for Austen, it 
is women — because they are too vulnerable in the world at large — 
who must acquiesce in their own confinement, no matter how stifling 
it may be. 

But it is precisely to the limits of her art that Austen's most vocal 
critics have always responded, with both praise and blame. The tone 
is set by the curiously backhanded compliments of Sir Walter Scott, 
who compares her novels to "cornfields and cottages and meadows," 
as opposed to "highly adorned grounds" or "the rugged sublimities 
of a mountain landscape." The pleasure of such fiction is, he explains, 
such that "the youthful wanderer may return from his promenade 
to the ordinary business of life, without any chance of having his 
head turned by the recollection of the scene through which he has 
been wandering." 8 In other words, the novels are so unassuming that 
they can be easily forgotten. Mundane (like cornfields) and small 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 109 

(like cottages) and tame (like meadows), they wear the "common- 
place face" Charlotte Bronte found in Pride and Prejudice, a novel 
Bront€ scornfully describes as "a carefully fenced, highly cultivated 
garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a 
bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue 
hill, no bonny beck." • 

Spatial images of boundary and enclosure seem to proliferate when- 
ever we find writers coming to terms with Jane Austen, as if they 
were displaying their own anxieties about what she represents. 
Edward Fitzgerald's comment — "She is capital as far as she goes: 
but she never goes out of the Parlour" — is a classic in this respect, 
as is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's breezy characterization of the 
novels as "perfect as far as they go — that's certain. Only they don't 
go far, I think." 10 It is hardly surprising that Emerson is "at a loss 
to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a 
rate," horrified as he is by what he considers the trivializing domes- 
ticity and diminution of her fiction : 

. . . vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in 
the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, 
wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and 
narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer in both the 
stories I have read, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice, is marriage- 
ableness. All that interests in any character introduced is still 
this one, Has he or (she) the money to marry with, and conditions, 
conforming? 'Tis "the nympholepsy of a fond despair," say, 
rather, of an English boarding-house. Suicide is more respect- 
able." 

But the conventionally masculine judgment of Austen's triviality is 
probably best illustrated by Mark Twain, who cannot even bring 
himself to spell her name correctly in a letter to Howells, her staunch- 
est American defender: Poe's "prose," he notes, "is unreadable — like 
Jane Austin's," adding that there is one difference: "I could read 
his prose on salary, but not Jane's. Jane is entirely impossible. It 
seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death." 12 
Certainly D. H. Lawrence expresses similar hostility for the lady 
writer in his attack on Austen as "this old maid" who "typifies 
'personality' instead of character, the sharp knowing in apartness 



HO Inside the House of Fiction 

instead of knowing in togetherness, and she is, to my feeling, thorough- 
ly unpleasant, English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the 
word." 13 

Repeatedly, in other words, Austen was placed in the double bind 
she would so convincingly dramatize in her novels, for when not 
rejected as artificial and convention-bound, she was condemned as 
natural and therefore a writer almost in spite of herself. Imagining 
her as "the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough," 
Henry James describes Austen's "light felicity," her "extraordinary 
grace," as a sign of "her unconsciousness" : 

... as if . . . she sometimes, over her work basket, her tapestry 
flowers, in the spare, cool drawing-room of other days, fell a- 
musing, lapsed too metaphorically, as one may say, into wool 
gathering, and her dropped stitches, of these pardonable, of 
these precious moments, were afterwards picked up as little 
touches of human truth, little glimpses of steady vision, little 
master-strokes of imagination. 14 

A stereotypical "lady" author, Austen is here diminished into a small 
personage whose domestic productions result in artistic creation not 
through the exacting craft by which the male author weaves the 
intricate figures in his own carpets, but through fortuitous forgetful- 
ness on the part of the lady (who drops her stitches unthinkingly) 
and through the presumably male critical establishment that picks 
them up afterwards to view them as charming miniatures of imagina- 
tive activity. The entire passage radiates James's anxiety at his own 
indebtedness to this "little" female precursor who, to his embarrass- 
ment, taught him so much of his presumably masterful art. Indeed, 
in a story that examines Austen's curious effect on men and her 
usefulness in male culture, Rudyard Kipling has one of his more 
pugnacious characters insist that Jane Austen "did leave lawful issue 
in the shape o' one son; an' 'is name was 'Enery James." 18 

In "The Janeites" Kipling presents several veterans from World 
War I listening to a shell-shocked ex-Garrison Artillery man, Hum- 
berstall, recount his experiences on the Somme Front, where he had 
unexpectedly discovered a secret unit of Austen fans who call them- 
selves the Society of the Janeites. Despite the seeming discrepancy 
between Austen's decorously "feminine" parlor and the violent, 



Shut Up in Prose : Austen's Juvenilia 111 

"masculine" war, the officers analyze the significance of their re- 
stricting ranks and roles much as Austen analyzes the meaning of 
her characters' limiting social positions. Not only does Humberstall 
discover that Austen's characters are "only just like people you'd 
run across any day," he also knows that "They're all on the make, 
in a quiet way, in Jane." He is not surprised, therefore, when the 
whole company is blown to pieces by one man's addlepated adherence 
to a code: as his naming of the guns after Austen's "heavies" demon- 
strates, the ego that creates all the problems for her characters is the 
same ego that shoots Kipling's guns. Paradoxically, moreover, the 
firings of "General Tilney" and "The Lady Catherine de Bugg" also 
seem to point our attention to the explosive anger behind the decorous 
surfaces of Austen's novels, although the men in the trenches find in 
the Austen guns the symbol of what they think they are fighting for. 

Using Austen the same way American servicemen might have 
exploited pin-up girls, the Society of Janeites transforms their heroine 
into a nostalgic symbol of order, culture, England, in an apocalyptic 
world where all the old gods have failed or disappeared. But Austen 
is adapted when adopted for use by masculine society, and she 
functions to perpetrate the male bonding and violence she would 
herself have deplored. Clearly Kipling is involved in ridiculing the 
formation of religious sects or cults, specifically the historical Janeites 
who sanctified Austen into the apotheosis of propriety and elegance, 
of what Ann Douglas has called in a somewhat different context 
the "feminization" of culture. But Kipling implies that so-called 
feminization is a male-dominated process inflicted upon women. And 
in this respect he illustrates how Austen has herself become a victim 
of the fictionalizing process we will see her acknowledging as women's 
basic problem in her own fiction. 

Not only a parody of what male culture has made of the cult of 
Jane, however, "The Janeites" is also a tribute to Austen, who 
justifies her deification as the patron saint of the officers by furnishing 
Humberstall with what turns out to be a password that literally saves 
his life by getting him a place on a hospital train. By pronouncing 
the name "Miss Bates," Humberstall miraculously survives circum- 
stances as inauspicious as those endured by Miss Bates herself, a 
spinster in Emma whose physical, economic, and social confinement 
is only mitigated by her good humor. Certainly Humberstall's special 



112 Inside the House of Fiction 

fondness for Persuasion — which celebrates Captain Harville's "ingeni- 
ous contrivances and nice arrangements ... to turn the actual space 
to the best possible account" l * — is not unrelated to his appreciation 
of Austen herself: "There's no one to touch Jane when you're in a 
tight place." From Austen, then, Humberstall and his companions 
have gained not only an analysis of social conventions that helps 
make sense of their own constricted lives, but also an example of how 
to inhabit a small space with grace and intelligence. 

It is eminently appropriate that the Army Janeites try to survive 
by making the best of a bad situation, accepting their tight place and 
digging in behind the camouflage-screens they have constructed 
around their trenches. While their position is finally given away, 
their attitude is worthy of the writer who concerns herself almost 
exclusively with characters inhabiting the common sitting room. 
Critical disparagement of the triviality of this place is related to 
values that find war or business somehow qualitatively more "real" 
or "significant" than, for example, the politics of the family." But 
critics who patronize or castigate Austen for her acceptance of limits 
and boundaries are overlooking a subversive strain in even her 
earliest stories: Austen's courageous "grace under pressure" is not 
only a refuge from a dangerous reality, it is also a comment on it, as 
W. H. Auden implied : 

You could not shock her more than she shocks me ; 

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass. 
It makes me most uncomfortable to see 

An English spinster of the middle class 

Describe the amorous effects of "brass," 
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety 
The economic basis of society. 18 

Although she has become a symbol of culture, it is shocking how 
persistently Austen demonstrates her discomfort with her cultural 
inheritance, specifically her dissatisfaction with the tight place as- 
signed women in patriarchy and her analysis of the economics of 
sexual exploitation. At the same time, however, she knows from the 
beginning of her career that there is no other place for her but a tight 
one, and her parodic strategy is itself a testimony to her struggle with 
inadequate but inescapable structures. If, like Scott and Bronte, 



Slwt Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 113 

Emerson and James, we continue to see her world as narrow or 
trivial, perhaps we can learn from Humberstall that "there's no one 
to touch Jane when you're in a tight place." Since this tight place 
is both literary and social, we will begin with the parodic juvenilia 
and then consider "the amorous effects of 'brass' " in Northanger Abbey 
to trace how and why Austen is centrally concerned with the impos- 
sibility of women escaping the conventions and categories that, in 
every sense, belittle them. 



Jane Austen has always been famous for fireside scenes in which 
several characters comfortably and quietly discuss options so seeming- 
ly trivial that it is astonishing when they are transformed into im- 
portant ethical dilemmas. There is always a feeling, too, that we owe 
to her narrator's art the significance with which such scenes are 
invested : she seemed to know about the burdens of banality and the 
resulting pressure to subject even the smallest gestures to close analysis. 
A family in Love and Freindship ( 1 790) sit by the fireplace in their "cot" 
when they hear a knock on the door: 

My Father started — "What noise is that," (said he.) "It 
sounds like a loud rapping at the door" — (replied my Mother.) 
"it does indeed." (cried I.) "I am of your opinion; (said my 
Father) it certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon 
violence exerted against our unoffending door." "Yes (exclaimed 
I) I cannot help thinking it must be somebody who knocks for 
admittance." 

"That is another point (replied he;) We must not pretend to 
determine on what motive the person may knock — tho' that 
someone does rap at the door, I am partly convinced." 19 

Clearly this discursive speculation on the knocking at the door ridi- 
cules the propensity of sentimental novelists to record even the most 
exasperatingly trivial events, but it simultaneously demonstrates the 
common female ennui at having to maintain polite conversation 
while waiting for a prince to come. In other words, such juvenilia is 
important not only because in this early work Austen ridicules the 
fake literary conventions that debase expression, thereby dangerously 
falsifying expectations, especially for female readers, but also because 



114 Inside the House of Fiction 

she reveals here her awareness that such conventions have inalterably 
shaped women's lives. For Jane Austen's parody of extravagant 
literary conventions turns on the culture that makes women continu- 
ally vulnerable to such fantasies. 

Laura of Love and Freindship is understandably frustrated by the 
banal confinement of the fireside scene: "Alas," she laments, "how 
am I to avoid those evils I shall never be exposed to?" Because she 
is allowed to pursue those evils with indecorous abandon, Love and 
Freindship is a good place to begin to understand attitudes more fully 
dramatized there than elsewhere in Austen's fiction. With a singular 
lack of the "infallible discretion" 20 for which it would later become 
famous, Austen's adolescent fiction includes a larger "slice of life" 
than we might at first expect: thievery and drunkenness, matricide 
and patricide, adultery and madness are common subjects. More- 
over, the parodic melodrama of this fiction unfolds through hectic 
geographical maneuverings, particularly through female escapes and 
escapades quite unlike those that appear in the mature novels. 

Laura, for instance, elopes with a stranger upon whom, she im- 
mediately decides, the happiness or misery of her future life depends. 
From her humble cottage in the vale of Uske, she travels to visit 
Edward's aunt in Middlesex, but she must leave immediately after 
Edward boasts to his father of his pride in provoking that parent's 
displeasure by marrying without his consent. Running offin Edward's 
father's carriage, the happy couple meet up with Sophia and Augustus 
at "M," but they are forced to remove themselves quickly when 
Augustus is arrested for having "gracefully purloined" his father's 
money. Alone in the world, after taking turns fainting on the sofa, 
the two girls set out for London but end up in Scotland, where they 
successfully encourage a young female relative to elope to Gretna 
Green. Thrown out in punishment for this bad advice, Laura and 
Sophia meet up with their dying husbands, naturally in a phaeton 
crash. Sophia is fittingly taken off by a galloping consumption, while 
Laura proceeds by a stagecoach in which she is reunited with her 
husband's long-lost family who have been traveling back and forth 
from Sterling to Edinburgh for reasons that are far too complicated 
and ridiculous to relate here. 

Of course her contrivance of such a zany picaresque does not con- 
tradict Austen's later insistence on the limits of her artistic province, 



Shut Up in Prose: Austin's Juvenilia 115 

since the point of her parody is precisely to illustrate the dangerous 
delusiveness of fiction which seriously presents heroines like Laura 
(and stories like Love and Freindship) as models of reality. While ridi- 
culing ludicrous literary conventions, Austen also implies that roman- 
tic stories create absurd misconceptions. Such novelistic cliches as 
love at first sight, the primacy of passion over all other emotions and/ 
or dudes, the chivalric exploits of the hero, the vulnerable sensitivity 
of the heroine, the lovers' proclaimed indifference to financial con- 
siderations, and the cruel crudity of parents are all shown to be at 
best improbable; at worst they are shown to provide manipulative 
roles and hypocritical jargon which mask materialistic and libidinal 
egoism. 

Living lives regulated by the rules provided by popular fiction, 
these characters prove only how very bankrupt that fiction is. For 
while Laura and Sophia proclaim their delicate feelings, tender 
sentiments, and refined sensibilities, they are in fact having a delight- 
ful time gratifying their desires at the expense of everyone else's. 
Austen's critique of the ethical effects of such literature is matched 
by her insistence on its basic falsity : adventure, intrigue, crime, pas- 
sion, and death arrive with such intensity, in such abundance, and 
with such rapidity that they lose all reality. Surely they are just the 
hectic daydreams of an imagination infected by too many Emmelines 
and Emilias. 21 The extensive itinerary of a heroine like Laura is the 
most dramatic clue that her story is mere wish-fulfillment, one es- 
pecially attractive to women who live at home confined to the domes- 
tic sphere, as do such heroines of Austen's nonparodic juvenilia as 
Emma Watson of The Watsons and Catharine of the early fiction 
"Catharine." 

Significantly, however, Emma Watson and Catharine are both 
avid readers of romance, just as Austen herself was clearly one of 
those young women whose imagination had, in fact, been inalterably 
affected by all the escapist literature provided them, then as now. 
Not the least of the curious effects of Love and Freindship results from 
the contradiction between the narrator's insistent ridicule of her 
heroines and their liveliness, their general willingness to get on with 
it and catch the next coach. Laura and Sophia are really quite attrac- 
tive in their exuberant assertiveness, their exploration and exploita- 
tion of the world, their curiously honest expression of their needs, 



116 Inside the House of Fiction 

their rebellious rejection of their fathers' advice, their demands for 
autonomy, their sense of the significance and drama of their lives and 
adventures, their gullible delight in playing out the plots they have 
admired. The girls' rebellion against familial restraints seems to have 
so fascinated Austen that she reiterates it almost obsessively in Love 
and Freindship, and again in a hilarious letter when she takes on the 
persona of an anonymous female, correspondent who cheerfully 
explains, "I murdered my Father at a very early period of my Life, 
I have since murdered my Mother, and I am now going to murder 
my Sister." ** The matricides and patricides make such characters 
seem much more exuberantly alive than their sensible, slow-witted, 
dying parents. It is this covert counterpoint that makes suspicious the 
overt "moral" of Love and Freindship, suggesting that though Austen 
appears to be operating in a repressive tradition, many of her generic 
moral signals are merely convenient camouflage. 

At first glance, Sophia and Laura seem related to a common type 
in eighteenth-century literature. Like Biddy Tipkins of Steele's The 
Tender Husband, Coleman's Polly Honeycombe, and Lydia Languish of 
Sheridan's The Rivals, for instance, these girls are filled with outlandish 
fancies derived from their readings in the circulating library. Illus- 
trating the dangers of feminine lawlessness and the necessity of female 
submission, female quixotes of eighteenth-century fiction typically 
exemplify the evils of romantic fiction and female assertion. The 
abundance of such heroines in her juvenilia would seem to place 
Austen in precisely the tradition Ellen Moers has recently explored, 
that of the educating heroine who preaches the necessity of dutiful 
restraint to female readers, cautioning them especially against the 
snares of romance. But Austen did not admire the prototypical 
Madame de Genlis; she was "disgusted" with her brand of didac- 
ticism 23 and with the evangelic fervor of novelists who considered 
themselves primarily moralists. 24 

Far from modeling herself on conservative conduct writers like 
Hannah Moore or Dr. Gregory or Mrs. Chapone, 25 Austen repeatedly 
demonstrates her alienation from the aggressively patriarchal tradi- 
tion that constitutes her Augustan inheritance, as well as her agree- 
ment with Mary Wollstonecraft that these authors helped "render 
women more artificial, weak characters, than they would otherwise 
have been." 2 * A writer who could parody An Essay on Man to read 



Stmt Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 117 

"Ride where you may, Be Candid where you can" [italics ours] is not 
about to vindicate the ways of God to man. 2 ' Nor is she about to 
justify the ways of Pope to women. One suspects that Austen, like 
Marianne Dashwood, appreciates Pope no more than is proper.** 
Even Dr. Johnson, whom she obviously does value, has his oracular 
rhetorical style parodied, first in the empty abstractions and antitheses 
that abound in the juvenilia, 29 and later in the mouth of Pride and 
Prejudice's Mary Bennet, a girl who prides herself on pompous plati- 
tudes. Finally, Austen attacks The Spectator repeatedly, at least in part 
for its condescension toward female readers. The Regency, as well 
as her own private perspective as a woman, inalterably separates 
Austen from the Augustan context in which she is so frequently 
placed. Like her most mature heroine, Anne Elliot of Persuasion, she 
sometimes advised young readers to reflect on the wisdom of essayists 
who sought to "rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, 
and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurance," but 
she too is "eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill 
bear examination" (P, I, chap. 11). 

If Austen rejects the romantic traditions of her culture in a parody 
like Love and Freindship, she does so not by way of the attack on femi- 
nine flightiness so common in conduct literature, or, at least, she uses 
this motif to mask a somewhat different point. Love and Freindship is 
the first hint of the depth of her alienation from her culture, especially 
as that culture defined and circumscribed women. Far from being 
the usual appeal for female sobriety and submission to domestic 
restraints so common in anti-romantic eighteenth-century literature, 
Love and Freindship attacks a society that trivializes female assertion 
by channeling it into the most ridiculous and unproductive forms of 
behavior. With nothing to do in the world, Sophia and Laura 
become addicts of feeling. Like all the other heroines of Austen's 
parodic juvenilia, they make an identity out of passivity, as if fore- 
shadowing the bored girls described by Simone de Beauvoir, who 
"give themselves up to gloomy and romantic daydreams": 

Neglected, "misunderstood," they seek consolation in narcissistic 
fancies: they view themselves as romantic heroines of fiction, 
with self-admiration and self-pity. Quite naturally they become 
coquettish and stagy, these defects becoming more conspicuous 



118 Inside the House of Fiction 

at puberty. Their malaise shows itself in impatience, tantrums, 
tears; they enjoy crying — a taste that many women retain in 
later years — largely because they like to play the part of victims. 
. . . Little girls sometimes watch themselves cry in a mirror, to 
double the pleasure. 30 

Sophia and Laura do make a cult of passivity, fainting and languishing 
dramatically on sofas, defining their virtues and beauty in terms of 
their physical weakness and their susceptibility to overwhelming 
passions. 

In this way, and more overtly by constantly scrutinizing their own 
physical perfections, they dramatize de Beauvoir's point that women, 
in typical victim fashion, become narcissistic out of their fear of facing 
reality. And because they pride themselves not only on their frailty 
but also on those very "accomplishments" that insure it, their narcis- 
sism is inextricably linked to masochism, for they have been success- 
fully socialized into believing that their subordinate status in society 
is precisely the fulfillment they crave. Austen is very clear on the 
reasons for their obsessive fancies : Sophia and Laura are the victims 
of what Karen Horney has recently identified as the "overvaluation 
of love" and in this respect, according to Austen, they typify their 
sex.* 1 Encouraged to know and care only about the love of men, 
Laura and Sophia are compulsive and indiscriminate in satisfying 
their insatiable need for being loved, while they are themselves in- 
capable of authentic feeling. They would and do go to any lengths 
to "catch" men, but they must feign ignorance, modesty, and in- 
difference to amatory passion. Austen shows how popular romantic 
fiction contributes to the traditional notion that women have no 
other legitimate aim but to love men and how this assumption is at 
the root of "female" narcissism, masochism, and deceit. She could 
hardly have set out to create a more heretical challenge to societal 
definitions of the feminine. 

Furthermore, Love and Freindship displays Austen's concern with 
the rhetorical effect of fiction, not in terms of the moral issues raised 
by Dr. Johnson in his influential essay "On Fiction," but in terms 
of the psychological destruction such extravagant role models and 
illusory plots can wreak. De Beauvoir writes of "stagy" girls who 
"view themselves as romantic heroines of fiction" ; and at least one of 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 119 

the reasons Laura and Sophia seem so grotesque is that they are living 
out predetermined plots: as readers who have accepted, even em- 
braced, their status as characters, they epitomize the ways in which 
women have been tempted to forfeit interiority and the freedom of 
self-definition for literary roles. For if, as we might infer from Kipling, 
Austen herself was destined to become a sanctified symbol, her 
characters are no less circumscribed by fictional stereotypes and plots 
that seem to transform them into manic puppets. Like Anne Elliot, 
who explains that she will "not allow books to prove anything" 
because "men have had every advantage of us in telling their own 
story," Austen retains her suspicions about the effect of literary 
images of both sexes, and she repeatedly resorts to parodic strategies 
to discredit such images, deconstructing, for example, Richardson's 
influential ideas of heroism and heroinism. 

Refusing to appreciate such angelic paragons as Clarissa or Pamela, 
Austen criticizes the morally pernicious equation of female virtue 
with passivity, or masculinity with aggression. From Lady Susan to 
Sanditon, she rejects stories in which women simply defend their virtue 
against male sexual advances. Most of her heroines resemble Charlotte 
Heywood, who picks up a copy of Camilla only to put it down again 
because "She had not Camilla's Youth, & had no intention of having 
her Distress." 32 Similarly, Austen criticizes the Richardsonian rake by 
implying that sentimental fiction legitimizes the role of the seducer- 
rapist, thereby encouraging men to act out their most predatory 
impulses. Sir Edward of Sanditon is only the last of the false suitors 
who models himself on Lovelace, his life's primary objective being 
seduction. For Austen, the libertine is a relative of the Byronic hero, 
and she is quite sure that his dangerous attractions are best defused 
through ridicule: "I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, 
& have nothing else to do," she writes in a letter that probably best 
illustrates the technique. 33 Because she realizes that writers like 
Richardson and Byron have truthfully represented the power strug- 
gle between the sexes, however, she does seek a way of telling their 
story without perpetuating it. In each of her novels, a seduced-and- 
abandoned plot is embedded in the form of an interpolated tale told 
to the heroine as a monitory image of her own more problematic 
story. 

For all her ladylike discretion, then, Austen is rigorous in her 



120 Inside the House of Fiction 

revolt against the conventions she inherited. But she expresses her 
dissent under the cover of parodic strategies that had been legitimized 
by the most conservative writers of her time and that therefore were 
then (and remain now) radically ambiguous. Informing her recur- 
rent use of parody is her belief that the inherited literary structures 
which are not directly degrading to her sex are patently irrelevant. 
Therefore, when she begins Sense and Sensibility with a retelling of 
King Lear, her reversals imply that male traditions need to be 
evaluated and reinterpreted from a female perspective: instead of 
the evil daughter castrating the old king by whittling away at his 
retinue of knights ("what need one?"), Austen represents the male 
heir and his wife persuading themselves to cheat their already 
unjusdy deprived sisters of a rightful share of the patrimony ("Alto- 
gether, they will have five hundred a-year amongst them, and what 
on earth can four women want for more than that?" [SS, I, chap. 
2]). When Maria Bertram echoes the caged bird of Sterne's A Sen- 
timental Journey, complaining that the locked gates of her future 
husband's grounds are too confining — "I cannot get out, as the 
starling said" 34 — she reflects on the dangers of the romantic cele- 
bration of personal liberty and self-expression for women who will 
be severely punished if they insist on getting out. 

Whether here, or in her parodies of Fanny Burney and Sir Samuel 
Egerton Brydges in Pride and Prejudice, Austen dramatizes how 
damaging it has been for women to inhabit a culture created by 
and for men, confirming perhaps more than any of her sisterly 
successors the truth of Mary Ellmann's contention that 

for women writers, as for Negro, what others have said bears 
down on whatever they can say themselves. Both are like 
people looking for their own bodies under razed buildings, 
having to clear away debris. In their every effort to formulate 
a new point of view, one feels the refutation of previous points 
of view — a weight which must impede spontaneity. 35 

Austen demystifies the literature she has read neither because she 
believes it misrepresents reality, as Mary Lascelles argues, nor out 
of obsessive fear of emotional contact, as Marvin Mudrick claims, 
nor because she is writing Tory propaganda against the Jacobins, 
as Marilyn Butler speculates, 3 * but because she seeks to illustrate 



Skut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 121 

how such fictions are the alien creations of writers who contribute 
to the enfeebling of women. 

But though Ellmann's image is generally helpful for an under- 
standing of the female artist, in Austen's case it is a simplification. 
Austen's culture is not a destroyed rubble around her corpse. On 
the contrary, it is a healthy and powerful architecture which she 
must learn to inhabit. Far from looking under razed buildings or 
(even more radically) razing buildings herself, Austen admits the 
limits and discomforts of the paternal roof, but learns to live beneath 
it. As we have seen, however, she begins by laughing at its construc- 
tion, pointing out exactly how much of that construction actually 
depends on the subjugation of women. If she wishes to be an architect 
herself, however, she needs to make use of the only available building 
materials — the language and genres, conventions and stereotypes 
at her disposal. She does not reject these, she reinvents them. For 
one thing, she has herself admired and enjoyed the literature of 
such sister novelists as Maria Edgeworth, Mrs. Radcliffe, Charlotte 
Lennox, Mary Brunton, and Fanny Burney. For another, as we 
have seen, regardless of how damaging they have been, the conven- 
tions of romantic fiction have been internalized by the women of 
her culture and so they do describe the psychology of growing up 
female. Finally, these are the only available stories she has. Austen 
makes a virtue of her own confinement, as her heroines will do also. 
By exploiting the very conventions she exposes as inadequate, she 
demonstrates the power of patriarchy as well as the ambivalence 
and confinement of the female writer. She also discovers an effective 
subterfuge for a severe critique of her culture. For even as she 
dramatizes her own alienation from a society she cannot evade or 
transcend, she subverts the conventions of popular fiction to describe 
the lonely vulnerability of girls whose lives, if more mundane, are 
just as thwarted as those they read about so obsessively. For all their 
hilarious exaggeration, then, the incidents and characters of the 
juvenilia reappear in the later novels, where they portray the 
bewilderment of heroines whose guides are as inadequate as the 
author's in her search for a way of telling their story. 

Just as Laura languishes in the Vale of Uske at the beginning of 
Love and Freindship, for example, the later heroines are confined to 
homes noteworthy for their suffocating atmosphere. The heroine 



122 Inside the House of Fiction 

of "Catharine" is limited to the company of an aunt who fears that 
all contact with society will engage the girl's heart imprudently. 
Living in her aunt's inexorably ordered house, Catharine has nothing 
to do but retreat to a romantically constructed bower, a place of 
adolescent illusions. Boredom is also a major affliction for Catherine 
Morland and Charlotte Heywood, who are involved in the drudgery 
of educating younger siblings in secluded areas offering few potential 
friends, as it is for the seemingly more privileged Emma, who suffers 
from intellectual loneliness, as well as the blazing fires, closed win- 
dows, and locked doors of her father's house. The Dashwood sisters 
move into a cottage with parlors too small for parties, and Fanny 
Price only manages to remove herself from her suffocatingly cramped 
home in Portsmouth to the little white attic which all the other 
occupants of Mansfield Park have outgrown. When the parental 
house is not downright uncomfortable because of its inadequate 
space, it is still a place with no privacy. Thus the only person able 
to retreat from the relentlessly trivial bustle at the Bennets is the 
father, who has his own library. Furthermore, as Nina Auerbach 
has shown, all the girls inhabit houses that are never endowed with 
the physical concreteness and comfort that specificity supplies. 3 ' 
The absence of details suggests how empty and unreal such family 
life feels, and a character like Anne Elliot, for example, faces the 
sterile elegance of her father's estate confined and confused by one 
of the few details the reader is provided, the mirrors in her father's 
private dressing room. 

One reason why the adventures of the later heroines seem to supply 
such small relief to girls "doomed to waste [their] Days of Youth 
and Beauty in a humble Cottage in the Vale" is that most, like 
Laura, can only wait for an unpredictable and unreliable knock 
on the door. What characterizes the excursions of all these heroines 
is their total dependency on the whim of wealthier family or friends. 
None has the power to produce her own itinerary and none knows 
until the very last moment whether or not she will be taken on a 
trip upon which her happiness often depends. All the heroines of 
Austen's fiction very much want to experience the wider world 
outside their parents' province; each, though, must wait until lucky 
enough to be asked to accompany a chaperone who frequently 
only mars the pleasure of the adventure. Although in her earliest 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 123 

writing Austen ridicules the rapidity and improbability of coinci- 
dence in second-rate fiction, not a few of her own plots save the 
heroines from stagnation by means of the overtly literary device of 
an introduction to an older person who is so pleased with the heroine 
that "at parting she declares her sole ambition was to have her 
accompany them the next morning to Bath, whither they were 
going for some weeks."' 8 

It is probably for this. reason that, from the juvenilia to the post- 
humously published fragments, there is a recurrent interest in the 
horse and carriage. It is not surprising in the juvenilia to find a 
young woman marrying a man she loathes because he has promised 
her a new chaise, with a silver border and a saddle horse, in return 
for her not expecting to go to any public place for three years. 89 
Indeed, not a few of the heroines recall the plight of two characters 
in the juvenilia who go on a walking tour through Wales with only 
one pony, ridden by their mother: not only do their sketches suffer, 
being "not such exact resemblances as might be wished, from their 
being taken as [they] ran along," so do their feet as they find them- 
selves hopping home from Hereford. 40 Still, they are delighted with 
their excursion, and their passion for travel reminds us of the run- 
aways who abound in Austen's novels, young women whose imagina- 
tions are tainted by romantic notions which fuel their excessive 
materialism or sexuality, and who would do anything with anyone 
in order to escape their families: Eliza Brandon, Julia and Maria 
Bertram, Lydia Bennet, Lucy Steele, and Georgianna Darcy are 
all "prepared for matrimony by an hatred of home, restraint, and 
tranquillity" (MP, II, chap. 3). Provided with only the naive cliches 
of sentimental literature, they insist on acting out those very plots 
Austen would — but therefore cannot — exorcise from her own fiction. 

But hopping home from Hereford also recalls Marianne Dashwood 
who, like Fanny Price, is vitally concerned with her want of a horse: 
this pleasure and exercise is not at these girls' disposal primarily 
because of its expense and impropriety. Emma Woodhouse is sub- 
jected to the unwelcome proposals of Mr. Elton because she cannot 
avoid a ride in his carriage, and Jane Bennet becomes seriously ill 
at a time when her parents' horses cannot be spared. Similarly, 
Catherine Morland and Mrs. Parker are both victimized by male 
escorts whose recklessness hazards their health, if not their lives. It 



124 Inside the House of Fiction 

is no small testimony of her regard for their reciprocal partnership 
that Anne Elliot sees the lively and mutually self-regulating style of 
the Crofts' driving of their one-horse chaise as a good representation 
of their marriage. Coaches, barouche-landaus, and curricles are the 
crucial factors that will determine who goes where with whom on 
the expeditions to places like Northanger, Pemberly, Donwell Abbey, 
Southerton, and Lyme. 

Every trivial social occasion, each of the many visits and calls 
endured if not enjoyed by the heroines, reminds us that women are 
dependent on fathers or brothers for even this most limited form of 
movement, when they are not indebted to wealthy widows who 
censure and criticize officiously. 41 Not possessing or controlling the 
means of transportation, each heroine is defined as different from 
the poorest men of her neighborhood, all of whom can convey 
themselves wherever they want or need to go. Indeed, what distin- 
guishes the heroines from their brothers is invariably their lack of 
liberty: while Austen describes how younger brothers are as finan- 
cially circumscribed as their sisters, for instance in their choosing of 
a mate, she always insists that the caste of gender takes precedence 
over the dictates of class; as poor a dependent as William Price is 
far more mobile than both his indigent sisters and his wealthy 
female cousins. For Austen, the domestic confinement of women is 
not a metaphor so much as a literal fact of life, enforced by all those 
elaborate rules of etiquette governing even the trivial morning calls 
that affect the females of each of the novels. The fact that "he is to 
purvey, and she to smile" 4 * is what must have enraged and repelled 
readers like Bronte and Barrett Browning. As Anne Elliot explains, 
"We live at home, quiet, confined and our feelings prey upon us" 
(/», II, chap. 11). 

According to popular moralists of Austen's day, what would be 
needed for a satisfied life in such uncongenial circumstances would 
be "inner resources." Yet these are what most of the young women 
in her novels lack, precisely because of the inadequate upbringing 
with which they have been provided by absent or ineffectual mothers. 
In fact, though Austen's juvenilia often ridicules fiction that portrays 
the heroine as an orphan or foundling or neglected stepdaughter, 
the mature novelist does not herself supply her female protagonists 
with very different family situations. In A Vindication of the Rights of 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 125 

Woman Mary Wollstonecraft explained that "woman ... a slave in 
every situation to prejudice, seldom exerts enlightened maternal 
affection; for she either neglects her children, or spoils them by 
improper indulgences." 43 Austen would agree, although she focuses 
specifically on mothers who fail in their nurturing of daughters. 
Emma Woodhouse, Emma Watson, Catharine, and Anne Elliot are 
literally motherless, as are such minor characters as Clara Brereton, 
Jane Fairfax, the Steele sisters, Miss Tilney, Georgianna Darcy, the 
Miss Bingleys, Mary Crawford, and Harriet Smith. But those girls 
who have living mothers are nonetheless neglected or overindulged 
by the absence of enlightened maternal affection. 

Fanny Price "might scruple to make use of the words, but she 
must and did feel that her mother was a partial, ill-judging parent, 
a dawdle, a slattern, who neither taught nor restrained her children, 
whose house was the scene of mismanagement and discomfort . . . 
who had no talent, no conversation, no affection toward herself" 
{MP, III, chap. 8). Mrs. Price, however, is not much different from 
Mrs. Dashwood and Mrs. Bennet, who are as immature and silly 
as their youngest daughters, and who are therefore unable to guide 
young women into maturity. Women like Lady Bertram, Mrs. 
Musgrove, and Mrs. Bates are a burden on their children because 
their ignorance, indolence, and folly, resulting as they do in neglect, 
seem no better than the smothering love of those women whose 
officiousness spoils by improper indulgence. Fanny Dashwood and 
Lady Middleton of Sense and Sensibility, for example, are cruelly 
indifferent to the needs of all but their children, who are therefore 
transformed by such inauspicious attention into noisy, bothersome 
monsters. Lady Catherine de Bourgh proves conclusively that au- 
thoritative management of a daughter's life cannot be identified 
with nurturing love : coldly administering all aspects of her daughter's 
growth, overbearing Lady Catherine produces a girl who "was pale 
and sickly; her features, though not plain, were insignificant; and 
she spoke very little, except in a low voice." 44 

Because they are literally or figuratively motherless, the daughters 
in Austen's fiction are easily persuaded that they must look to men 
for security. Although their mothers' example proves how debilitating 
marriage can be, they seek husbands in order to escape from home. 
What feminists have recently called matrophobia — fear of becoming 



126 Inside the House of Fiction 

one's mother 44 — supplies one more motive to flee the parental house, 
as does the financial necessity of competing for male protection 
which their mothers really cannot supply. The parodic portrait in 
"Jack and Alice" of the competition between drunken Alice Johnson 
and the accomplished tailor's daughter, Lucy, for the incomparable 
Charles Adams (who was "so dazzling a Beauty that none but 
Eagles could look him in the Face") is thus not so different from the 
rivalry Emma Woodhouse feels toward Harriet Smith or Jane Fairfax 
over Mr. Knightley. And it is hardly surprising when in the juvenilia 
Austen pushes this fierce female rivalry to its fitting conclusion, 
describing how poor Lucy falls a victim to the envy of a female 
companion "who jealous of her superiour charms took her by poison 
from an admiring World at the age of seventeen."*' 

Austen ridicules the easy violence that embellishes melodrama 
even as she explores hostility between young women who feel they 
have no alternative but to compete on the marriage market. Like 
Charlotte Lucas, many an Austen heroine, "without thinking highly 
either of men or of matrimony," considers marriage "the only 
honourable provision for well-educated young women of small for- 
tune, their pleasantest preservation from want" (PP, I, chap. 22). 
And so, at the beginning of The Watsons, one sister has to warn 
another about a third that, "There is nothing she would not do to 
get married. . . . Do not trust her with any secrets of your own, take 
warning by me, do not trust her." Because such females would 
rather marry a man they dislike than teach school or enter the 
governess "slave-trade," 47 they fight ferociously for the few eligible 
men who do seem attractive. The rivalries between Miss Bingley 
and Miss Bennet, between Miss Dashwood and Miss Steele, between 
Julia and Maria Bertram for Henry Crawford, between the Musgrove 
sisters for Captain Wentworth are only the most obvious examples 
of fierce female competition where female anger is deflected from 
powerful male to powerless female targets. 

Throughout the juvenilia, most hilariously in "Frederic and 
Elfrida," Austen ridicules the idea, promulgated by romantic fiction, 
that the only events worth recording are marriage proposals, marriage 
ceremonies, engagements made or broken, preparations for dances 
where lovers are expected, amatory disappointments, and elopements. 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 127 

But her own fiction is essentially limited to just such topics. The 
implication is clear: marriage is crucial because it is the only acces- 
sible form of self-definition for girls in her society. Indeed, Austen's 
silence on all other subjects becomes itself a kind of statement, for 
the absences in her fiction prove how deficient are the lives of girls 
and women, even as they testify to her own deprivation as a woman 
writer. Yet Austen actually uses her self-proclaimed and celebrated 
acceptance of the limits of her art to mask a subversive critique of 
the forms of self-expression available to her both as an artist and as 
a woman, for her ridicule of inane literary structures helps her 
articulate her alienation from equally inadequate societal strictures. 



Austen was indisputably fascinated by double-talk, by conversa- 
tions that imply the opposite of what they intend, narrative state- 
ments that can only confuse, and descriptions that are linguistically 
sound, but indecipherable or tautological. We can see her concern 
for such matters in "Jack and Alice," where dictatorial Lady Wil- 
liams is adamant in giving her friend unintelligible advice about a 
proposed trip to Bath: 

"What say you to accompanying these Ladies: I shall be 
miserable without you — t'will be a most pleasant tour to you — I 
hope you'll go; if you do I am sure t'will be the Death of me — 
pray be persuaded." 48 

Almost as if she were taking on the persona of Mrs. Slipslop or 
Mrs. Malaprop (that wonderful "queen of the dictionary") or 
Tabitha Bramble, Austen engages here in the same kind of playful 
nonsense that occurs in the narrator's introduction to the story of 
"Frederic and Elfrida" ("The Uncle of Elfrida was the Father of 
Frederic; in other words, they were first cousins by the Father's side") 
or in "Lesley Castle" ("We are handsome, my dear Charlotte, very 
handsome and the greatest of our Perfections is, that, we are entirely 
insensible of them ourselves"). Characteristically, in Austen's juve- 
nilia one girl explains, "if a book is well written, I always find it too 
short," and discovers that her friend agrees: "So do I, only I get 
tired of it before it is finished." 4 * What is so wonderful about these 



128 Inside the House of Fiction 

sentences is the "ladylike" way in which they quietly subvert the 
conventions of language, while managing to sound perfectly accept- 
able, even grammatically elegant and decorous. 

With its insistent evocation of two generic frameworks, the 
Bildungsroman and the burlesque, Northanger Abbey (1818) supplies one 
reason for Austen's fascination with coding, concealing, or just 
plain not saying what she means, because this apparently amusing 
and inoffensive novel finally expresses an indictment of patriarchy 
that could hardly be considered proper or even permissible in 
Austen's day. Indeed, when this early work was published post- 
humously — because its author could not find a publisher who would 
print it during her lifetime — it was the harsh portrayal of the 
patriarch that most disturbed reviewers. 80 Since we have already 
seen that Austen tends to enact her own ambivalent relationship to 
her literary predecessors as she describes her heroines' vulnerability 
in masculine society, it is hardly surprising to find that she describes 
Catherine Morland's initiation into the fashionable life of Bath, 
balls, and marriage settlements by trying to come to terms with the 
complex and ambiguous relationship between women and the novel. 

Northanger Abbey begins with a sentence that resonates as the 
novel progresses: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland 
in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine." 
And certainly what we see of the young Catherine is her unromantic 
physical exuberance and health. We are told, moreover, that she 
was "fond of all boys' plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely 
to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a 
dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush" (I, chap. 
1). Inattentive to books, uninterested in music or drawing, she was 
"noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved 
nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the 
back of the house" (I, chap. 1). But at fifteen Catherine began to 
curl her hair and read, and "from fifteen to seventeen she was in 
training for a heroine" (I, chap. 1). Indeed her actual "training for 
a heroine" is documented in the rest of the novel, although, as we 
shall see, it is hard to imagine a more uncongenial or unnatural 
course of instruction for her or for any other spirited girl. 

Puzzled, confused, anxious to please, and above else innocent 
and curious, Catherine wonders as she wanders up and down the 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 129 

two traditional settings for female initiation, the dance hall at Bath 
and the passageways of a gothic abbey. But Austen keeps on re- 
minding us that Catherine is typical because she is not born to be 
a heroine: burdened with parents who were "not in the least addicted 
to locking up . . . daughters", Catherine could "not write sonnets" 
and had "no notion of drawing" (I, chap. 1). There is "not one 
lord" in her neighborhood — "not even a baronet" (I, chap. 2) — 
and on her journey to Bath, "neither robbers nor tempests befriend" 
her (I, chap. 2). When she enters the Upper Rooms in Bath, "not 
one" gentleman starts with wonder on beholding her, "no whisper 
of eager inquiry ran round the room, nor was she once called a 
divinity by anybody" (I, chap. 2). Her room at the Abbey is "by 
no means unreasonably large, and contained neither tapestry nor 
velvets" (II, chap. 6). Austen dramatizes all the ways in which 
Catherine is unable to live up to the rather unbelievable accomplish- 
ments of Charlotte Smith's and Mrs. Radcliffe's popular paragons. 
Heroines, it seems, are not born like people, but manufactured like 
monsters, and also like monsters they seem fated to self-destruct. 
Thus JVorthanger Abbey describes exactly how a girl in search of her 
life story finds herself entrapped in a series of monstrous fictions 
which deprive her of primacy. 

To begin with, we see this fictionalizing process most clearly in 
the first section at Bath. Sitting in the crowded, noisy Upper Rooms, 
awaiting a suitable partner, Catherine is uncomfortably situated 
between Mrs. Thorpe, who talks only of her children, and Mrs. 
Allen, who is a monomaniac on the subject of gowns, hats, muslins, 
and ribbons. Fit representatives not only of fashionable life but also 
of the state of female maturity in an aristocratic and patriarchal 
society, they are a constant source of irritation to Catherine, who is 
happy to be liberated from their ridiculous refrains by Isabella and 
John Thorpe. Yet if Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe are grotesque, 
the young Thorpes are equally absurd, for in them we see what it 
means to be a fashionable young lady or gentleman. Isabella is a 
heroine with a vengeance : flirting and feigning, she is a sister of the 
earlier Sophia and Laura who runs after men with a single-minded 
determination not even barely disguised by her protestations of 
sisterly affection ..for Catherine. Contorted "with smiles of most 
exquisite misery, and the laughing eye of utter despondency" (I, 



130 Inside the House of Fiction 

chap. 9), Isabella is continually acting out a script that makes her 
ridiculous. At the same time, her brother, as trapped in the stereo- 
types of masculinity as she is in femininity, continually contradicts 
himself, even while he constantly boasts about his skill as a hunter, 
his great gig, his incomparable drinking capacity, and the boldness 
of his riding. Not only, then, do the Thorpes represent a nightmarish 
version of what it means to see oneself as a hero or heroine, they 
also make Catherine's life miserable by preying on her gullibility 
and vulnerability. 

What both the Thorpes do is lie to her and about her until she is 
entrapped in a series of coercive fictions of their making. Catherine 
becomes the pawn in Isabella's plot, specifically the self-consciously 
dramatic romance with James Morland in which Catherine is sup- 
posed to play the role of sisterly intimate to a swooning, blushing 
Isabella: Isabella continually gives Catherine clues that she ought 
to be soliciting her friend's confessions of love or eliciting her anxieties 
about separating from her lover, clues which Catherine never follows 
because she never quite catches their meaning. Similarly, John 
Thorpe constructs a series of fictions in which Catherine is first the 
object of his own amorous designs and then a wealthy heiress whom 
General Tilney can further fictionalize. Catherine becomes extremely 
uncomfortable as he manipulates all these stories about her, and 
only her ignorance serves to save her from the humiliating realization 
that her invitation to Northanger depends on General Tilney's 
illusive image of her. 

When Henry Tilney points out to Catherine that "man has the 
advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal" (I, chap. 10), 
he echoes a truth articulated (in a far more tragic circumstance) by 
Clarissa, who would give up choice if she could but preserve "the 
liberty of refusal, which belongs to my Sex." 81 But in Austen's 
parodic text, Henry makes a point that is as much about fiction as 
it is about marriage and dancing, his purported subjects: Catherine 
is as confined by the cliched stories of the other characters as Austen 
is by her need to reject inherited stories of what it means to be a 
heroine. Unlike her author, however, Catherine "cannot speak well 
enough to be unintelligible" (II, chap. 1), so she lapses into silence 
when the Thorpes' version of reality contradicts her own, for in- 
stance when Isabella seats herself near a door that commands a 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 131 

good view of everybody entering because "it is so out of the way" 
(II, chap. 3), or when, in spite of John Thorpe's warnings about 
the violence of his horses, his carriage proceeds at a safe speed. 
Repeatedly, she does not understand "how to reconcile two such 
very different accounts of the same thing" (I, chap. 9). Enmeshed 
in the Thorpes' misinterpretations, Catherine can only feebly deflect 
Isabella's assertion that her rejection of John Thorpe represents the 
cooling of her first feelings: "You are describing what never hap- 
pened" (II, chap. 3). While Catherine only sporadically and con- 
fusedly glimpses the discrepancies between Isabella's stated hatred 
of men and her continual coquetry, or John Thorpe's assertion that 
he saw the Tilneys driving up the Lansdown Road and her own 
discovery of them walking down the street, Austen is clearly quite 
conscious of the lies which John and his sister use to falsify Catherine's 
sense of reality, just as she is aware of the source of these lies in the 
popular fiction of her day. 

Yet, despite her distaste for the falsity of fictional conventions, 
Austen insists quite early in the novel that she will not reject the 
practitioners of her own art : "I will not adopt that ungenerous and 
impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by 
their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number 
of which they are themselves adding" (I, chap. 5). In an extra- 
ordinary attack on critics of the novel, Austen makes it quite clear 
that she realizes male anthologists of Goldsmith, Milton, Pope, 
Prior, Addison, Steele, and Sterne are customarily praised ahead of 
the female creators of works like Cecelia, Camilla, or Belinda, although 
the work of such men is neither original nor literary. Indeed, as if 
to substantiate her feeling that prejudice against the novel is wide- 
spread, she shows how even an addicted reader of romances (who 
has been forced, like so many girls, to substitute novel reading for 
a formal education) needs to express disdain for the genre. In the 
important expedition to Beechen Cliff, we find Catherine claiming 
to despise the form. Novels, she says, are "not clever enough" for 
Henry Tilney because "gentlemen read better books" (I, chap. 14). 
But her censure is really, of course, a form of self-deprecation. 

The novel is a status-deprived genre, Austen implies, because it 
is closely associated with a status-deprived gender. Catherine con- 
siders novels an inferior kind of literature precisely because they 



132 Inside the House of Fiction 

had already become the province of women writers and of a rapidly 
expanding female audience. Again and again we see the kind of 
miseducation novels confer on Catherine, teaching her to talk in 
inflated and stilted cliches, training her to expect impossibly vil- 
lainous or virtuous behavior from people whose motives are more 
complex than she suspects, blinding her to the mundane selfishness 
of her contemporaries. Yet Austen declares that novel writers have 
been an "injured body," and she explicitly sets out to defend this 
species of composition that has been so unfairly decried out of 
"pride, ignorance, or fashion" (I, chap. 5). 

Her passionate defense of the novel is not as out of place as it 
might first seem, for if Northanger Abbey is a parody of novelistic 
cliches, it also resembles the rest of the juvenilia in« its tendency to 
rely on these very conventions for its own shape. Austen is writing 
a romance as conventional in its ways as those she criticizes: Cathe- 
rine Morland's most endearing quality is her inexperience, and her 
adventures result from the Aliens' gratuitous decision to take her as 
a companion on their trip to Bath, where she is actually introduced 
to Henry Tilney by the Master of Ceremonies, and where a lucky 
mistake causes his father to invite her to visit, appropriately enough, 
his gothic mansion. Like so many of Pamela's daughters, Catherine 
marries the man of her dreams and is thereby elevated to his rank. 
In other words, she succeeds in doing what Isabella is so mercilessly 
punished for wanting to do, making a good match. Finally, in true 
heroine style, Catherine rejects the fake suitor for the true one 52 
and is rescued for felicity by an ending no less aggressively engineered 
than that of most sentimental novels. 

As if justifying both her spirited defense of sister novelists and the 
romantic shape of her heroine's story, Austen has Catherine admit 
a fierce animosity for the sober pages of history. Catherine tells 
Henry Tilney and his sister that history "tells [her] nothing that 
does not either vex or weary [her]. The quarrels of popes and kings, 
with wars or pestilences, in every page ; the men all so good for nothing, 
and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome" [italics ours] (I, 
chap. 14). She is severely criticized for this view; but she is, after 
all, correct, for the knowledge conferred by historians does seem 
irrelevant to the private lives of most women. Furthermore, Austen 
had already explored this fact in her only attempt at history, a 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 133 

parody of Goldsmith's History of England, written in her youth and 
signed as the work of "a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant His- 
torian." 53 What is conveyed in this early joke is precisely Catherine's 
sense of the irrationality, cruelty, and irrelevance of history, as well 
as the partisan spleen of most so-called objective historians. Until 
she can place herself, and two friends, in the company of Mary 
Queen of Scots, historical events seem as absurdly distant from 
Austen's common concerns as they do to Charlotte Bronte in Shirley, 
George Eliot in Middlemarch, or Virginia Woolf in The Years, writers 
who self-consciously display the ways in which history and historical 
narration only indirecdy affect women because they deal with 
public events never experienced at first hand in the privatized lives 
of women. 

Even quite late in Austen's career, when she was approached to 
write a history of the august House of Cobourg, she refused to take 
historical "reality" seriously, declaring that she could no more write 
a historical romance than an epic poem, "and if it were indispensable 
for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other 
people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first 
chapter."* 4 While in this letter she could defend her "pictures of 
domesdc life in country villages" with a sure sense of her own 
province as a writer, Austen's sympathy and identification with 
Catherine Morland's ignorance is evident elsewhere in her protesta- 
tion that certain topics are entirely unknown to her. She cannot 
portray a clergyman sketched by a correspondent because 

Such a man's conversation must at times be on subjects of 
science and philosophy, of which I know nothing ; or at least 
be occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a 
woman who, like me, knows only her own mother tongue, and 
has read very little in that, would be totally without the power of 
giving. A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive 
acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, 
appears to me quite indispensible for the person who would do 
justice to your clergyman; and I think I may boast myself to 
be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed 
female who ever dared to be an authoress. 4 * 

Like Fanny Burney, who refused Dr. Johnson's offer of Latin lessons 



134 Inside the House of Fiction 

because she could not "devote so much time to acquire something 
I shall always dread to have known," 44 Austen seems to have felt 
the need to maintain a degree of ladylike ignorance. 

Yet not only does Austen write about women's miseducation, not 
only does she feel herself to be a victim of it; in Northanger Abbey she 
angrily attacks their culturally conditioned ignorance, for she is 
clearly infuriated that "A woman especially, if she have the mis- 
fortunate of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can" 
(I, chap. 14). Though "imbecility in females is a great enhancement 
of their personal charms," Austen sarcastically admits that some men 
are "too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire any 
thing more in woman than ignorance" (I, chap. 14).WhenatBeechen 
Cliff Henry Tilney moves from the subject of the natural landscape 
to a discussion of politics, the narrator, like Catherine, keeps still. 
Etiquette, it seems, would forbid such discussions (for character and 
author alike) , even if ignorance did not make them impossible. At 
the same time, however, both Catherine and Austen realize that 
history and politics, which have been completely beyond the reach 
of women's experience, are far from sanctified by such a divorce. 
"What in the midst of that mighty drama [of history] are girls and 
their blind visions?" Austen might have asked, as George Eliot 
would in Daniel Deronda. And she might have answered similarly 
that in these "delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages 
the treasures of human affection." 57 Ignoring the political and 
economic activity of men throughout history, Austen implies that 
history may very well be a uniform drama of masculine posturing 
that is no less a fiction (and a potentially pernicious one) than gothic 
romance. She suggests, too, that this fiction of history is finally a 
matter of indifference to women, who never participate in it and 
who are almost completely absent from its pages. Austen thus anti- 
cipates a question Virginia Woolf would angrily pose in Three Guineas: 
"what does 'patriotism' mean to [the educated man's sister]? Has 
she the same reasons for being proud of England, for loving England, 
for defending England?" 58 For, like Woolf, Austen asserts that 
women see male-dominated history from the disillusioned and dis- 
affected perspective of the outsider. 

At the same time, the issue of women's reasons for "being proud 
of England, for loving England, for defending England" is crucial 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 135 

to the revision of gothic fiction we find in Nortkanger Abbey. Rather 
than rejecting the gothic conventions she burlesques, Austen is very 
clearly criticizing female gothic in order to reinvest it with authority. 
As A. Walton Litz has demonstrated, Austen disapproves of Mrs. 
Radcliffe's exotic locales because such settings imply a discrepancy 
between the heroine's danger and the reader's security. 59 Austen's 
heroine is defined as a reader, and in her narrative she blunders on 
more significant, if less melodramatic, truths, as potentially destruc- 
tive as any in Mrs. Radcliffe's fiction. Catherine discovers in the 
old-fashioned black cabinet something just as awful as a lost manu- 
script detailing a nun's story. Could Austen be pointing at the real 
threat to women's happiness when she describes her heroine finding 
a laundry list? Moreover, while Catherine reveak her own naive 
delusions when she expects to find Mrs. Tilney shut up and receiving 
from her husband's pitiless hands "a nightly supply of coarse food" 
(II, chap. 8), she does discover that "in suspecting General Tilney 
of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned 
against his character, or magnified his cruelty" (II, chap. 15). 

Using the conventions of gothic even as she transforms them into 
a subversive critique of patriarchy, Austen shows her heroine pene- 
trating to the secret of the Abbey, the hidden truth of the ancestral 
mansion, to learn the complete and arbitrary power of the owner 
of the house, the father, the General. In a book not unfittingly 
pronounced North) Anger, Austen rewrites the gothic not because she 
disagrees with her sister novelists about the confinement of women, 
but because she believes women have been imprisoned more effec- 
tively by miseducation than by walls and more by financial depen- 
dency, which is the authentic ancestral curse, than by any verbal 
oath or warning. Austen's gothic novel is set in England because — 
even while it ridicules and repudiates patriarchal politics (or perhaps 
because it does so) — it is, as Robert Hopkins has shown, the most 
political of Jane Austen's novels. Hopkins's analysis of the political 
allusions in Northanger Abbey reveals not only the mercenary General's 
"callous lack of concern for the commonweal," but also his role "as 
an inquisitor surveying possibly seditious pamphlets." This means 
that Henry Tilney's eulogy of an England where gothic atrocities 
can presumably never occur because "every man is surrounded by 
a neighborhood of voluntary spies" (II, chap. 9) refers ironically to 



136 Inside the House of Fiction 

the political paranoia and repression of the General, whose role as a 
modern inquisitor reflects Austen's sense of "the nightmarish political 
world of the 1790s and very early 1800s." 80 The writers of romance, 
Austen implies, were not so much wrong as simplistic in their 
descriptions of female vulnerability. In spite of her professed or 
actual ignorance, then, Austen brilliantly relocates the villain of the 
exotic, faraway gothic locale here, now, in England. 

It is significant, then, that General Tilney drives Catherine from 
his house without sufficient funds, without an escort for the seventy- 
mile journey, because she has no fortune of her own. Ellen Moers 
may exaggerate in her claim that "money and its making were 
characteristically female rather than male subjects in English fic- 
tion,"* 1 but Austen does characteristically explore the specific ways 
in which patriarchal control of women depends on women being 
denied the right to earn or even inherit their own money. From 
Sense and Sensibility, where a male heir deprives his sisters of their 
home, to Pride and Prejudice, where the male entail threatens the 
Bennet girls with marriages of convenience, from Emma, where Jane 
Fairfax must become a governess if she cannot engage herself to a 
wealthy husband, to Persuasion, where the widowed Mrs. Smith 
struggles ineffectually against poverty, Austen reminds her readers 
that the laws and customs of England may, as Henry Tilney glow- 
ingly announces, insure against wife-murder (II, chap. 10), but 
they do not offer much more than this minimal security for a wife 
not beloved, or a woman not a wife: as Austen explains in a letter 
to her favorite niece, "single women have a dreadful propensity for 
being poor."*' Thus, in all her novels Austen examines the female 
powerlessness that underlies monetary pressure to marry, the injustice 
of inheritance laws, the ignorance of women denied formal education, 
the psychological vulnerability of the heiress or widow, the exploited 
dependency of the spinster, the boredom of the lady provided with 
no vocation. And the powerlessness implicit in all these situations is 
also a part of the secret behind the graceful and even elegant surfaces 
of English society that Catherine manages to penetrate. Like Austen's 
other heroines, she comes to realize that most women resemble her 
friend Eleanor Tilney, who is only "a nominal mistress of [the 
house]"; her "real power is nothing" (II, chap. 13). 

Catherine's realization that the family, as represented by the 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 137 

Tilneys, is a bankrupt and coercive institution matches the dis- 
coveries of many of Austen's other heroines. Specifically, her realiza- 
tion that General Tilney controls the household despite his lack of 
honor and feeling matches Elizabeth Bennet's recognition that her 
father's withdrawal into his library is destructive and selfish, or 
Emma Woodhouse's recognition that her valetudinarian father has 
strengthened her egotism out of his selfish need for her undivided 
attention. More than the discoveries of the others, though, Catherine's 
realization of General Tilney's greed and coercion resembles Fanny 
Price's recognition that the head of the Bertram family is not only 
fallible and inflexible in his judgment but mercenary in his motives. 
In a sense, then, all of Austen's later heroines resemble Catherine 
Morland in their, discovery of the failure of the father, the emptiness 
of the patriarchal hierarchy, and, as Mary Burgan has shown, the 
inadequacy of the family as the basic psychological and economic 
unit of society. 83 

Significantly, all these fathers who control the finances of the 
house are in their various ways incapable of sustaining their children. 
Mr. Woodhouse quite literally tries to starve his family and guests, 
while Sir Walter Elliot is too cheap to provide dinners for his daugh- 
ters, and Sir Thomas Bertram is so concerned with the elegance of 
his repast that his children only seek to escape his well-stocked table. 
As an exacting gourmet, General Tilney looks upon a "tolerably 
large eating-room as one of the necessities of life" (II, chap. 6), but 
his own appetite is not a little alarming, and the meals over which 
he presides are invariably a testimony to his childrens' and his 
guest's deprivation. Continually oppressed at the General's table 
with his incessant attentions, "perverse as it seemed, [Catherine] 
doubted whether she might not have felt less, had she been less 
attended to" [II, chap. 5]. What continues to mystify her about the 
General is "why he should say one thing so positively, and mean 
another all the while" (II, chap. 11). In fact, Austen redefines the 
gothic in yet another way in Northanger Abbey by showing that 
Catherine Morland is trapped, not inside the General's Abbey, but 
inside his fiction, a tale in which she figures as an heiress and thus 
a suitable bride for his second son. Moreover, though it may be less 
obvious, Catherine is also trapped by the interpretations of the 
General's children. 



138 Inside the House of Fiction 

Even before Beechen Cliff Elinor Tilney is "not at home" to 
Catherine, who then sees her leaving the house with her father 
(I, chap. 12). And on Beechen Cliff, Catherine finds that her own 
language is not understood. While all the critics seem to side with 
Henry Tilney's "corrections" of her "mistakes," it is clear from 
Catherine's defense of herself that her language quite accurately 
reflects her own perspective. She uses the word torment, for example, 
in place of instruct because she knows what Henry Tilney has never 
experienced : 

"You think me foolish to call instruction a torment, but if 
you had been as much used as myself to hear poor little children 
first learning their letters and then learning to spell, if you had 
ever seen how stupid they can be for a whole morning together, 
and how tired my poor mother is at the end of it, as I am in 
the habit of seeing almost every day of my life at home, you 
would allow that to torment and to instruct might sometimes 
be used as synonymous words." [I, chap. 14] 

Immediately following this linguistic debate, Catherine watches the 
Tilneys' "viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed 
to drawing," and hears them talking "in phrases which conveyed 
scarcely any idea to her" (I, chap. 14). She is convinced moreover 
that "the little which she could understand . . . appeared to con- 
tradict the very few notions she had entertained On the matter 
before." Surely instruction which causes her to doubt the evidence 
of her own eyes and understanding is a kind of torment. And she 
is further victimized by the process of depersonalization begun in 
Bath when she wholeheartedly adopts Henry's view and even enter- 
tains the belief "that Henry Tilney could never be wrong" (I, chap. 
14). 

While the Tilneys are certainly neither as hypocritical nor as 
coercive as the Thorpes, they do contribute to Catherine's confused 
anxiety over the validity of her own interpretations. Whenever Henry 
talks with her, he mockingly treats her like a "heroine," thereby 
surrounding her with cliched language and cliched plots. When 
they meet at a dance in Bath, he claims to worry about the poor 
figure he will make in her journal, and while his ridicule is no doubt 
meant for the sentimental novels in which every girl covers reams 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia J 39 

of paper with the most mundane details of her less than heroic life, 
such ridicule gratuitously misinterprets (and confuses) Catherine. 
At Northanger, when she confides to Henry that his sister has taught 
her how to love a hyacinth, he responds with approbation : "a taste 
for flowers is always desirable in your sex, as a means of getting you 
out of doors, and tempting you to more frequent exercise than you 
would otherwise take!" This, although we know that Catherine has 
always been happy outdoors; she is left quietly to protest that 
"Mamma says I am never within" (II, chap. 7). Furthermore, as 
Katrin Ristkok Burlin has noticed, it is Henry who provides Catherine 
with the plot that really threatens to overwhelm her in the Abbey.* 4 
While General Tilney resembles the fathers of Austen's mature 
fiction in his attempts to watch and control his children as an author 
would "his" characters — witness the narcissistic Sir Walter and the 
witty Mr. Bennet — it is Henry Tilney who teaches Catherine at 
Beechen Cliff to view nature aesthetically, and it is he, as his father's 
son, who authors the gothic story that entraps Catherine in the 
sliding panels, ancient tapestries, gloomy passageways, funereal beds, 
and haunted halls of Northanger. 

Of course, though Austen's portrait of the artist as a young man 
stresses the dangers of literary manipulation, Henry's miniature 
gothic is clearly a burlesque, and no one except the gullible Catherine 
would ever be taken in for a minute. Indeed, many critics are 
uncomfortable with this aspect of the novel, finding that it splits 
here into two parts. But the two sections are not differentiated so 
much by the realism of the Bath section and the burlesque of the 
Abbey scenes as by a crucial shift in Catherine, who seems at the 
Abbey finally to fall into literacy, to be confined in prose. The girl 
who originally preferred cricket, baseball, and horseback riding to 
books becomes fascinated with Henry Tilney's plot because it is the 
culminating step in her training to become a heroine, which has 
progressed from her early perusal of Gray and Pope to her shutting 
herself up in Bath with Isabella to read novels and her purchasing 
a new writing desk which she takes with her in the chaise to North- 
anger. Indeed, what seems to attract Catherine to Henry Tilney is 
his lively literariness, for he is very closely associated with books. 
He has read "hundreds and hundreds" of novels (I, chap. 14), all 
of which furnish him with misogy nistic stereotypes for her. This man 



140 Inside the House of Fiction 

whose room at Northanger is littered with books, guns, and great- 
coats is a specialist in "young ladies' ways." 

"Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is 
peculiarly female," Henry explains, and that female style is faultless 
except for "a general deficiency in subject, a total inattention to 
stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar" (I, chap. 3). 
Proving himself a man, he says, "no less by the generosity of my 
soul, than the clearness of my head" (I, chap. 14), Henry has "no 
patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes 
down to the comprehension of yours." He feels, moreover, that 
"perhaps the abilities of women are neither sound nor acute — 
neither vigorous nor keen. Perhaps they want observation, discern- 
ment, judgment, fire, genius and wit" (I, chap. 14). For all his 
charming vivacity, then, Henry Tilney's misogyny is closely identi- 
fied with his literary authority so that, when his tale of Northanger 
sounds "just like a book" to Catherine (II, chap. 5), she is bound to 
be shut up inside this "horrid" novel by finally acquiescing to her 
status as a character. 

Yet Catherine is one of the first examples we have of a character 
who gets away from her author, since her imagination runs away 
with the plot and role Henry has supplied her. Significantly, the 
story that Catherine enacts involves her in a series of terrifying, 
gothic adventures. Shaking and sweating through a succession of 
sleepless nights, she becomes obsessed with broken handles on chests 
that suggest "premature violence" to her, and "strange ciphers" 
that promise to disclose "hidden secrets" (II, chap. 6). Searching 
for clues to some impending evil or doom, she finds herself terrified 
when a cabinet will not open, only to discover in the morning that 
she had locked it herself; and, worse, she becomes convinced of 
Mrs. Tilney's confinement and finds herself weeping before the 
monument to the dead woman's memory. The monument notwith- 
standing, however, she is unconvinced of Mrs. Tilney's decease 
because she knows that a waxen figure might have been introduced 
and substituted in the family vault. Indeed, when she does not find 
a lost manuscript to document the General's iniquity, Catherine is 
only further assured that this villain has too much wit to leave clues 
that would lead to his detecdon. 

Most simply, of course, this section of Northanger Abbey testifies to 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 141 

the delusions created when girls internalize the ridiculous expecta- 
tions and standards of gothic fiction. But the anxiety Catherine 
experiences just at the point when she has truly come like a heroine 
to the home of the man of her dreams seems also to express feelings 
of confusion that are more than understandable if we remember 
how constantly she has been beset with alien visions of herself and 
with incomprehensible and contradictory standards for behavior. 
Since heroines are not born but made, the making of a heroine 
seems to imply an unnatural acquiescence in all these incompre- 
hensible fictions: indeed, Austen seems to be implying that the girl 
who becomes a heroine will become ill, if not mad. Here is the 
natural consequence of a young lady's sentimental education in 
preening, reading, shopping, and dreaming. Already, in Bath, caught 
between the contradictory claims of friends and relatives, Catherine 
meditates "by turns, on broken promises and broken arches, phaetons 
and fake hangings, Tilneys and trap-doors" (I, chap. 11), as if she 
inhabits Pope's mad Cave of Spleen. Later, however, wandering 
through the Abbey at night, Catherine could be said to be searching 
finally for her own true story, seeking to unearth the past fate of a 
lost female who will somehow unlock the secret of her own future. 
Aspiring to become the next Mrs. Tilney, Catherine is understand- 
ably obsessed with the figure of the last Mrs. Tilney, and if we take 
her fantasy seriously, in spite of the heavy parodic tone here, we can 
see why, for Mrs. Tilney is an image of herself. Feeling confined and 
constrained in the General's house, but not understanding why, 
Catherine projects her own feelings of victimization into her imagin- 
ings of the General's wife, whose mild countenance is fitted to a 
frame in death, as presumably in life, and whose painting finds no 
more favor in the Abbey than her person did. Like Mary Elizabeth 
Coleridge in "The Other Side of a Mirror," Catherine confronts the 
image of this imprisoned, silenced woman only to realize "I am she!" 
Significantly, this story of the female prisoner is Catherine's only 
independent fiction, and it is a story that she must immediately 
renounce as a "voluntary, self-created delusion" (II, chap. 10) 
which can earn only her self-hatred. 

If General Tilney is a monster of manipulation, then, Catherine 
Morland, as George Levine has shown, is also "an incipient monster," 
not very different from the monsters that haunt Austen's contem- 



142 Inside the House of Fiction 

porary, Mary Shelley.** But Catherine's monstrosity is not just, as 
Levine claims, the result of social climbing at odds with the limits 
imposed by the social and moral order; it is also the result of her 
search for a story of her own. Imaginative and sensitive, Catherine 
genuinely believes that she can become the heroine of her own life 
story, that she can author herself, and thereby define and control 
reality. But, like Mary Shelley's monster, she must finally come to 
terms with herself as a creature of someone else's making, a character 
trapped inside an uncongenial plot. In fact, like Mary Shelley's 
monster, Catherine cannot make sense of the signs of her culture, 
and her frustration is at least partially reflected in her fiction of the 
starving, suffering Mrs. Tilney. That she sees herself liberating this 
female prisoner is thus only part of her delusion, because Catherine 
is destined to fall not just from what Ellen Moers calls "heroinism" 
but even from authorship and authority: she is fated to be taught 
the indelicacy of her own attempt at fiction-making. Searching to 
understand the literary problems that persistently tease her, seeking 
to find the hidden origin of her own discomfort, we shall see that 
Catherine is motivated by a curiosity that links her not only to 
Mary Shelley's monster, but also to such rebellious, dissatisfied 
inquirers as Catherine Earnshaw, Jane Eyre, and Dorothea Brooke. 
Mystified first by the Thorpes, then by the Tilneys, Catherine 
Morland is understandably filled with a sense of her own otherness, 
and the story of the imprisoned wife fully reveals both her anger 
and her self-pity. But her gravest loss of power comes when she is 
fully "awakened" and "the visions of romance were over" (II, chap. 
10). Forced to renounce her story-telling, Catherine matures when 
"the anxieties of common life began soon to succeed to the alarms 
of romance" (II, chap. 10). First, her double, Isabella, who has 
been "all for ambition" (II, chap. 10), must be completely punished 
and revealed in all her monstrous aspiration. Henry Tilney is joking 
when he exclaims that Catherine must feel "that in losing Isabella, 
you lose half yourself " (II, chap. 10); but he is at least partially 
correct, since Isabella represents the distillation of Catherine's ambi- 
tion to author herself as a heroine. For this reason, the conversations 
about Isabella's want of fortune and the difficulty this places in the 
way of her marrying Captain Tilney raise Catherine's alarms about 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 143 

herself because, as Catherine admits, "she was as insignificant, and 
perhaps as portionless, as Isabella" (II, chap. 11). 

Isabella's last verbal attempt to revise reality is extremely unsuc- 
cessful; its inconsistencies and artificialities strike even Catherine as 
fake. "Ashamed of Isabella, and ashamed of having ever loved her" 
(II, chap. 12), Catherine therefore begins to awaken to the anxieties 
of common life, and her own fall follows close upon Isabella's. 
Driven from the General's house, she now experiences agitations 
"mournfully superior in reality and substance" to her earlier imagin- 
ings (II, chap. 13). Catherine had been convinced by Henry of the 
"absurdity of her curiosity and her fears," but now she discovers 
that he erred not only in his sense of Isabella's story ("you little 
thought of its ending so" [II, chap. 10]), but also in his sense of 
hers. Not the least of Catherine's agitations must involve the realiza- 
tion that she has submitted to Henry's estimate that her fears of the 
General were "only" imaginary, when all along she had been right. 

This is why Northanger Abbey is, finally, a gothic story as frightening 
as any told by Mrs. RadclifTe, for the evil it describes is the horror 
described by writers as dissimilar as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 
Phyllis Chesler, and Sylvia Plath, the terror and self-loathing that 
results when a woman is made to disregard her personal sense of 
danger, to accept as real what contradicts her perception of her own 
situation. More dramatic, if not more debilitating, examples can 
be cited to illustrate Catherine's confusion when she realizes she has 
replaced her own interiority or authenticity with Henry's inadequate 
judgments. For the process of being brainwashed that almost fatally 
confuses Catherine has always painfully humiliated women subjected 
to a maddening process that Florence Rush, in an allusion to the 
famous Ingrid Bergman movie about a woman so driven insane, 
has recently called "gaslighting."* 8 

While "a heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her 
native village, in all the triumph of recovered reputation" would be 
"a delight" for writer and reader alike, Austen admits, "I bring my 
heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace" (II, chap. 14). 
Catherine has nothing else to do but "to be silent and alone" (II, 
chap. 14). Having relinquished her attempt to gain a story or even 
a point of view, she composes a letter to Elinor that will not pain 



144 Inside the House of Fiction 

her if Henry should chance to read it. Like so many heroines, from 
Snow White to Kate Brown, who stands waiting for the kettle to 
boil at the beginning of Summer Before the Dark, Catherine is left 
with nothing to do but wait : 

She could neither sit still, nor employ herself for ten minutes 
together, walking round the garden and orchard again and 
again, as if nothing but motion was voluntary; and it seemed 
as if she could even walk about the house rather than remain 
fixed for any time in the parlour. [II, chap. 15] 

Her mother gives her a book of moral essays entitled The Mirror, 
which is what must now supplant the romances, for it tells stories 
appropriate to her "silence and sadness" (II, chap. 15). From this 
glass coffin she is rescued by the prince whose "affection originated 
in nothing better than gratitude" for her partiality toward him 
(II, chap. 15). 

In spite of Henry's faults and the inevitable coercion of his author- 
ity over her, his parsonage will of course be a more pleasant dwelling 
than either the General's Abbey or the parental cot. Within its 
well-proportioned rooms, the girl who so enjoyed rolling down green 
slopes can at least gain a glimpse through the windows of luxuriant 
green meadows ; in other words, Catherine's future home holds out 
the promise that women can find comfortable spaces to inhabit in 
their society. Austen even removes Elinor Tilney from "the evils of 
such a home as Northanger" (II, chap. 16), if only by marrying her 
to the gentleman whose servant left behind the laundry list. Yet the 
happy ending is the result of neither woman's education since, 
Austen implies, each continues to find the secret of the Abbey 
perplexing. We shall see that in this respect Catherine's fate fore- 
shadows that of the later heroines, most of whom are also "saved" 
when they relinquish their subjectivity through the manipulations 
of a narrator who calls attention to her own exertions and thereby 
makes us wonder whether the lives of women not so benevolently 
protected would have turned out quite so well. 

At the same time, even if the marriage of the past Mrs. Tilney 
makes us wonder about the future Mrs. Tilney's prospects for hap- 
piness, Austen has successfully balanced her own artistic commit- 
ment to an inherited literary structure that idealizes feminine sub- 



Shut Up in Prose: Austen's Juvenilia 145 

mission against her rebellious imaginative sympathies. With a heavy 
reliance on characters who are readers, all of Austen's early parodies 
point us, then, to the important subject of female imagination in 
her mature novels. But it is in Northanger Abbey that this novelist 
most forcefully indicates her consciousness of what Harold Bloom 
might call her "belatedness," a belatedness inextricably related to 
her definition of herself as female and therefore secondary. Just as 
Catherine Morland remains a reader, Austen presents herself as a 
"mere" interpreter and critic of prior fictions, and thereby quite 
modestly demonstrates her willingness to inhabit a house of fiction 
not of her own making. 




Jane Austen's Cover Story 
(and Its Secret Agents) 



I am like the needy knife-grinder — I have no story to tell. 

— Maria Edge worth 

I dwell in Possibility — 
A fairer House than Prose — 
More numerous of Windows — 
Superior — for Doors — 

— Emily Dickinson 

. . . the modes of fainting should be all as different as possible and 
may be made very diverting. 

— The Girls' Book of Diversions (ca. 1840) 

From Sappho to myself, consider the fate of women. 
How unwomanly to discuss it ! 

— Carolyn Kizer 



Jane Austen was not alone in experiencing the tensions inherent in 
being a "lady" writer, a fact that she herself seemed to stress when, 
in Northanger Abbey, she gently admonished literary women like 
Maria Edgeworth for being embarrassed about their status as 
novelists. Interestingly, Austen came close to analyzing a central 
problem for Edgeworth, who constantly judged and depreciated her 
own "feminine" fiction in terms of her father's commitment to 
pedagogically sound moral instruction. Indeed, as our first epigraph 
is meant to suggest, Maria Edgeworth 's persistent belief that she 
had no story of her own reflects Catherine Morland's initiation into 
her fallen female state as a person without a history, without a name 
of her own, without a story of significance which she could herself 

1+6 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 147 

author. Yet, because Edgeworth's image of herself as a needy knife- 
grinder suggests a potential for cutting remarks not dissimilar from 
what Virginia Woolf called Austen's delight in slicing her characters' 
heads off, 1 and because her reaction against General Tilney — "quite 
outrageously out of drawing and out of nature" 2 — reflects Austen's 
own discretion about male power in her later books, Maria Edge- 
worth's career is worth considering as a preface to the achievement 
of Austen's maturity. 

Although she was possibly one of the most popular and influential 
novelists of her time, Maria Edgeworth's personal reticence and 
modesty matched Austen's, causing Byron, among others, to observe, 
"One would never have guessed she could write her name; whereas 
her father talked, not as if he could write nothing else, but as if 
nothing else was worth writing." 3 Even to her most recent biographer, 
the name Edgeworth still means Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the 
father whose overbearing egotism amused or annoyed many of the 
people he met. And while Marilyn Butler explains that Richard 
Edgeworth must not be viewed as an unscrupulous Svengali operating 
on an unsuspecting child, 4 she does not seem to realize that his 
daughter's voluntary devotion could also inhibit and circumscribe 
her talent, creating perhaps an even more complex problem for the 
emerging author than outright coercion would have spawned. The 
portrait of Richard Edgeworth as a scientific inventor and Enlighten- 
ment theorist who practiced his pedagogy at home for the greater 
intellectual development of his family must be balanced against his 
Rousseauistic experiment with his first son (whose erratic and un- 
controllable spirits convinced him that Rousseau was wrong) and 
his fathering twenty-two children by four wives, more than one of 
whom was an object of his profound indifference. 

As the third of twenty-two and the daughter of the wife most 
completely neglected, Maria Edgeworth seems to have used her 
writing to gain the attention and approval of her father. From the 
beginning of her career, by their common consent, he became the 
impresario and narrator of her life. He first set her to work on 
censorious Madame de Genlis's Adele et Theodore, the work that 
would have launched her career, if his friend Thomas Day had not 
congratulated him when Maria's translation was cancelled by the 
publishers. While Maria wrote her Letters for Literary Ladies (1795) 



148 Inside the House of Fiction 

as a response to the ensuing correspondence between Day and 
Richard Lovell Edgeworth about the issue of female authorship, it 
can hardly be viewed as an act of literary assertion. 

For, far from defending female authority, this manuscript, which 
she described as "disfigured by all manner of crooked marks of 
papa's critical indignation, besides various abusive marginal notes,"* 
actually contains an attack on female flightiness and self-dramatiza- 
tion (in "Letters of Julia and Caroline") and a satiric essay implying 
that feminine arguments for even the most minor sorts of self-deter- 
mination are manipulative, hypocritical, self-congratulatory, and 
irrational ("Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification"). She 
does include an exchange of letters between a misogynist (presumably 
modelled on Day) who argues that "female prodigies . . . are scarcely 
less offensive to my taste than monsters" and a defender of female 
learning (presumably her father) who claims that 

considering that the pen was to women a new instrument, I 
think they have made at least as good a use of it as learned men 
did of the needle some centuries ago, when they set themselves 
to determine how many spirits could stand upon its point, and 
were ready to tear one another to pieces in the discussion of 
this sublime question.' 

But this "defense," which argues that women are no sillier than 
medieval theologians, is hardly a compliment, coming — as it does — 
from an enlightened philosopher, nor is the subsequent proposition 
that education is necessary to make women better wives and mothers, 
two roles Maria Edgeworth herself never undertook. Written for an 
audience composed of Days and Edgeworths, Letters for Literary 
Ladies helps us understand why Maria Edgeworth could not become 
an author without turning herself into a literary lady, a creature 
of her father's imagination who was understandably anxious for and 
about her father's control. 

"Where should I be without my father? I should sink into that 
nothing from which he has raised me," 7 Maria Edgeworth worried 
in an eerie adumbration of the fears expressed by George Eliot and 
a host of other dudful daughter-writers. Because Richard Lovell 
Edgeworth "pointed out" to her that "to be a mere writer of pretty 
stories and novellettes would be unworthy of his partner, pupil & 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 149 

daughter,"* Maria soon stopped writing the books which her early 
talent seemed to make so successful — not before, however, she wrote 
one novel without either his aid or his knowledge. Not only was 
Castle Rackrent ( 1 800) one of her earliest and most popular productions, 
it contains a subversive critique of patriarchy surprisingly similar 
to what we found in Northanger Abbey. 

As narrated by the trusty servant Thady Quirk, this history of an 
Irish ancestral mansion is told in terms of the succession of its owners, 
Irish aristocrats best characterized by their indolence, improvidence, 
and love for litigation, alcohol, and women. Sir Tallyhoos, Sir 
Patrick, Sir Murtagh, Sir Kit, and Sir Condy are praised and 
served by their loyal retainer, who nevertheless reveals their irre- 
sponsible abuse of their position in Irish society. Castle Rackrent also 
includes a particularly interesting episode about an imprisoned wife 
that further links it to the secret we discovered in the overlooked 
passageways of Northanger. All of the Rackrent landlords marry 
for money, but one of them, Sir Kit, brings back to Ireland a Jewish 
heiress as his wife. While Thady ostensibly bemoans what "this 
heretic Blackamore"* will bring down on the head of the estate, 
he actually describes the pathetic ignorance and vulnerability of 
the wealthy foreigner, who is completely at the mercy of her cruelly 
capricious husband. Her helplessness is dramatized, characteristi- 
cally, in an argument over the food for their table, since Sir Kit 
insists on irritating her with the presence of sausages, bacon, and 
pork at every meal. Refusing to feed on forbidden, foreign foods, 
as so many later heroines will, she responds by shutting herself up 
in her room, a dangerous solution since Sir Kit then locks her up. 
"We none of us ever saw or heard her speak for seven years after 
that" (29), Thady calmly explains. 

As if aware of the potential impact of this episode, the author 
affixes a long explanatory footnote attesdng to the historical accuracy 
of what "can scarcely be thought credible" by cidng "the celebrated 
Lady Cathcart's conjugal imprisonment," a case that might also 
have reminded Maria Edgeworth of the story of George I's wife, 
who was shut up in Hanover when he left to ascend to the English 
throne, and who escaped only through her death thirty-two years 
later. 10 Sir Kit is shown to follow the example of Lady Cathcart's 
husband when he drinks Lady Rackrent's good health with his table 



150 Inside the House of Fiction 

companions, sending a servant on a sham errand to ask if "there 
was anything at table he might send her," and accepting the sham 
answer returned by his servant that "she did not wish for anything, 
but drank the company's health" (30-31). Starving inside the 
ancestral mansion, the literally imprisoned wife is also figuratively 
imprisoned within her husband's fictions. Meanwhile, Thady loyally 
proclaims that Sir Kit was never cured of the gaming tricks that 
mortgaged his estate, but that this "was the only fault he had, God 
bless him!" (32). 

When, after her husband's death, Lady Rackrent recovers, fires 
the cook, and departs the country, Thady decides that "it was a 
shame for her, being his wife, not to show more duty," specifically 
not to have saved him from financial ruin. But clearly the lady's 
escape is a triumph that goes far in explaining why Castle Rackrent 
was scribbled fast, in secret, almost the only work of fiction Maria 
Edgeworth wrote without her father's help. Indeed she insisted that 
the story spontaneously came to her when she heard an old steward's 
voice, and that she simply recorded it. We will see other instances 
of such "trance" writing, especially with regard to the Brontes, but 
here it clearly helps explain why Castle Rackrent remained her book, 
why she steadily resisted her father's encouragement to add "cor- 
rections" to it. 11 

Certainly, when viewed as a woman's creation, Castle Rackrent 
must be considered a critique of patriarchy, for the male aristocratic 
line is criticized because it exploits Ireland, that traditional old sow, 
leaving a peasantry starved and dispossessed. Rackrent means de- 
structive rental, and Castle Rackrent is a protest against exploitative 
landlords. Furthermore, Thady Quirk enacts the typically powerless 
role of housekeeper with the same ambivalence that characterizes 
women like Elinor Tilney in Northanger Abbey and Nelly Dean in 
Wuthering Heights, both of whom identify with the male owner and 
enforce his will, although they see it as arbitrary and coercive. Yet, 
like Maria Edgeworth, the needy knifegrinder, even while Thady 
pretends to be of use by telling not his own story but his providers', 
his words are damaging, for he reveals the depravity of the very 
masters he seems to praise so loyally. And this steward who appears 
to serve his lords with such docility actually benefits from their 
decline, sets into motion the machinery that finishes them off, and 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 151 

even contributes to the demise of their last representative. Whether 
consciously or unconsciously, 1 * this "faithful family retainer" man- 
ages to get the big house. Exploiting the dissembling tactics of the 
powerless, Thady is an effective antagonist, and, at the end of the 
story, although he claims to despise him, it is his own son who has 
inherited the power of the Rackrent family. 

Pursuing her career in her father's sitting room and writing pri- 
marily to please him, Maria Edgeworth managed in this early fiction 
to evade her father's control by dramatizing the retaliatory revenge 
of the seemingly dutiful and the apparently weak. But in spite of 
its success and the good reception accorded her romance Belinda, 
she turned away from her own "pretty stories and novellettes" as 
"unworthy" of her father's "partner, pupil & daughter," deciding 
to pursue instead her father's projects, for example his Professional 
Education, a study of vocational education for boys. Devoted until 
his death to writing Irish tales and children's stories which serve as 
a gloss on his political and educational theories, Maria Edgeworth 
went as far as she could in seeing herself and presenting herself as 
her father's secretary: "I have only repeated the same opinions 
[Edgeworth 's] in other forms," she explained; "A certain quantity 
of bullion was given to me and I coined it into as many pieces as I 
thought would be convenient for popular use." 13 Admitting fre- 
quently that her "acting and most kind literary partner" made all 
the final decisions, she explained that "it was to please my father I 
first exerted myself to write, to please him I continued." But if "the 
first stone was thrown the first motion given by him," she under- 
standably believed that "when there is no similar moving power the 
beauteous circles vanish and the water stagnates." 14 

Although she was clearly troubled that without her author she 
would cease to exist or create, Maria Edgeworth solved the problem 
of what we have been calling "the anxiety of female authorship" 
by writing as if she were her father's pen. Like so many of her suc- 
cessors — Mrs. Gaskell, Geraldine Jewsbury, George Eliot, Olive 
Schreiner — she was plagued by headaches that might have reflected 
the strain of this solution. She was also convinced that her father's 
skill in cutting, his criticism, and invention alone allowed her to 
write by relieving her from the vacillation and anxiety to which 
she was so much subject. 16 In this respect Maria Edgeworth resembles 



152 Inside the House of Fiction 

Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch, for "if she had written a book she 
must have done it as Saint Theresa did, under the command of an 
authority that constrained her conscience" (chap. 10). Certainly we 
sense the strain in her biography, for example in the incident at 
Richard Lovell Edgeworth's deathbed: the day before he died, 
Marilyn Butler explains, Richard Edgeworth dictated to his daughter 
a letter for his publisher explaining that she would add 200 pages 
to his 480-page memoir within a month after his death. In the margin 
his secretary wrote what she apparently could not find the courage 
to say: "I never promised." 1 * Like Dorothea Casaubon, who finally 
never promises to complete Casaubon's book and instead writes 
silently a message on his notes explaining why she cannot, Maria 
Edgeworth must have struggled with the conflict between her desire 
to fulfill her father's wishes by living out his plots and her need to 
assert her own talents. Unlike Dorothea, however, she finally wrote 
her father's book in spite of the pain doing so must have entailed. 

Literally writing her father's book, however, was doing little more 
than what she did throughout her career when she wrote stories 
illustrating his theories and portraying the wise benevolence of male 
authority figures. At least one critic believes that she did manage to 
balance her father's standards with her personal allegiances. But 
even if she did covertly express her dissent from her father's values — 
by sustaining a dialogue in her fiction between moral surface and 
symbolic resistence 17 — what this rather schizophrenic solution earned 
her on the domestic front was her father's patronizing inscription 
on her writing desk: 

On this humble desk were written all the numerous works of 
my daughter, Maria Edgeworth, in the common sitting-room 
of my family. In these works which were chiefly written to 
please me, she has never attacked the personal character of 
any human being or interfered with the opinions of any sect 
or party, religious or political ; . . . she improved and amused 
her own mind, and gratified her heart, which I do believe is 
better than her head. 18 

Even as Castle Rackrent displays the same critique of patriarchy we 
traced in Northanger Abbey, then, Mr. Edgeworth's condescending 
praise of his daughter's desk in his sitting room reminds us that 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 153 

Austen also worked in such a decorous space. Likewise, just as 
Richard Lovell Edgeworth perceives this space as a sign of Maria's 
ladylike submission to his domestic control, Virginia Woolf suggests 
that such a writing place can serve as an emblem of the confinement 
of the "lady" novelist: 

If a woman wrote, she would have to write in the common 
sitting-room .... She was always interrupted. . . . Jane Austen 
wrote like that to the end of her days. "How she was able to 
effect all this," her nephew writes in his Memoir, "is surprising, 
for she had no separate study to repair to, and most of the work 
must have been done in the general sitting-room subject to all 
kinds of casual interruptions. She was careful that her occupa- 
tion should not be suspected by servants or visitors or any 
persons beyond her own family party." Jane Austen hid her 
manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting-paper. . . . 
[She] was glad that a hinge creaked, so that she might hide her 
manuscript before any one came in. 19 

Despite the odd contradiction we sense between Woolf 's repeated 
assertions elsewhere in A Room of One's Own that Austen was unim- 
peded by her sex and her clear-sighted recognition in this passage 
of the limits placed on Austen because of it, the image of the lady 
writing in the common sitting room is especially useful in helping 
us understand both Austen's confinement and the fictional strategies 
she developed for coping with it. We have already seen that even 
in the juvenilia (which many critics consider her most conservative 
work) there are clues that Austen is hiding a distinctly unladylike 
outlook behind the "cover" or "blotter" of parody. But the blotting 
paper poised in anticipation of a forewarning creak can serve as an 
emblem of a far more organic camouflage existing within the mature 
novels, even as it calls to our attention the anxiety that authorship 
entailed for Austen. 

We can see Austen struggling after Northanger Abbey to combine 
her implicitly rebellious vision with an explicitly decorous form as 
she follows Miss Edgeworth's example and writes in order to make 
herself useful, justifying her presumptuous attempts at the pen by 
inspiring other women with respect for the moral and social respon- 
sibilities of their domestic duties, and thereby allowing her surviving 



154 Inside the House of Fiction 

relatives to make the same claims as Mr. Edgeworth. Yet the repres- 
sive implications of the story she tells — a story, invariably, of the 
need for women to renounce their claims to stories of their own — 
paradoxically allow her to escape the imprisonment she defines and 
defends as her heroines' fate so that, like Emily Dickinson, Austen 
herself can finally be said to "dwell in Possibility — / A fairer House 
than Prose—" (J. 657). 



Austen's propriety is most apparent in the overt lesson she sets out 
to teach in all of her mature novels. Aware that male superiority is 
far more than a fiction, she always defers to the economic, social, 
and political power of men as she dramatizes how and why female 
survival depends on gaining male approval and protection. All the 
heroines who reject inadequate fathers are engaged in a search for 
better, more sensitive men who are, nevertheless, still the represen- 
tatives of authority. As in Northanger Abbey, the happy ending of an 
Austen novel occurs when the girl becomes a daughter to her hus- 
band, an older and wiser man who has been her teacher and her 
advisor, whose house can provide her with shelter and sustenance 
and at least derived status, reflected glory. Whether it be parsonage 
or ancestral mansion, the man's house is where the heroine can 
retreat from both her parents' inadequacies and the perils of the 
outside world : like Henry Tilney's Woodston, Delaford, Pemberley, 
Donwell, and Thornton Lacy are spacious, beautiful places almost 
always supplied with the loveliest fruit trees and the prettiest pros- 
pects. Whereas becoming a man means proving or testing oneself 
or earning a vocation, becoming a woman means relinquishing 
achievement and accommodating oneself to men and the spaces 
they provide. 

Dramatizing the necessity of female submission for female survival, 
Austen's story is especially flattering to male readers because it 
describes the taming not just of any woman but specifically of a 
rebellious, imaginative girl who is amorously mastered by a sensible 
man. No less than the blotter literally held over the manuscript on 
her writing desk, Austen's cover story of the necessity for silence and 
submission reinforces women's subordinate position in patriarchal 
culture. Interestingly, what common law called "coverture" at this 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 155 

time actually defined the married woman's status as suspended or 
"covered": "the very being or legal existence of the woman is sus- 
pended during the marriage," wrote Sir William Blackstone, "or 
at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband : 
under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything." 20 
The happiest ending envisioned by Austen, at least until her very 
last novel, accepts the necessity of protection and cover for heroines 
who wish to perform anything at all. 

At the same time, however, we shall see that Austen herself 
"performs everything" under this cover story. As Virginia Woolf 
noted, for all her "infallible discretion," Austen always stimulates 
her readers "to supply what is not there." 21 A story as sexist as that 
of the taming of the shrew, for example, provides her with a "blotter" 
or socially acceptable cover for expressing her own self-division. 
Undoubtedly a useful acknowledgment of her own ladylike sub- 
mission and her acquiescence to masculine values, this plot also 
allows Austen to consider her own anxiety about female assertion 
and expression, to dramatize her doubts about the possibility of 
being both a woman and a writer. She describes both her own 
dilemma and, by extension, that of all women who experience 
themselves as divided, caught in the contradiction between their 
status as human beings and their vocation as females. 

The impropriety of female creativity first emerges as a problem 
in Lady Susan, where Austen seems divided between her delight in 
the vitality of a talented libertine lady and her simultaneous rejection 
of the sexuality and selfishness of her heroine's plots. In this first 
version of the taming of the shrew, Austen exposes the wicked 
wilfulness of Lady Susan, who gets her own way because of her 
"artful" (Letters 4, 13, and 17), "bewitching powers" (Letter 4), 
powers intimately related to her "clever" and "happy command of 
language" (Letter 8). Using "deep arts," Lady Susan always has a 
"design" (Letter 4) or "artifice" that testifies to her great "talent" 
(Letters 16 and 36) as a "Mistress of Deceit" (Letter 23) who knows 
how to play a number of parts quite convincingly. She is the first of 
a series of heroines, of varying degrees of attractiveness, whose lively 
wit and energetic imagination make them both fascinating and 
frightening to their creator. 

Several critics have explored how Lady Susan's London ways are 



156 Inside the House of Fulton 

contrasted to her daughter's love of the country, how the mother's 
talkative liveliness and sexuality are balanced against the daughter's 
silence and chastity, how art is opposed to nature.** But, if Lady 
Susan is energetic in her pursuit of pleasure, her daughter is quite 
vapid and weak; indeed, she seems far more socialized into passivity 
than a fit representative of nature would be. Actually she is only 
necessary to emphasize Lady Susan's unattractiveness — her cruelty 
to her daughter — which can best be viewed as Austen's reflex to 
suppress her interest in such wilful sorts of women. For the relation- 
ship between Lady Susan and Frederica is not unlike that between 
the crafty Queen and her angelic step daughter, Snow White : Lady 
Susan seems almost obsessed with hatred of her daughter, who 
represents an extension of her own self, a projection of her own 
inescapable femininity which she tries to destroy or transcend even 
at the risk of the social ostracism she must inevitably incur at the 
end of the novel. These two, mother and daughter, reappear trans- 
formed in the mature novels into sisters, sometimes because Austen 
wishes to consider how they embody available options that are in 
some ways equally attractive yet mutually exclusive, sometimes 
because she seeks to illustrate how these two divided aspects of the 
self can be integrated. 

In Sense and Sensibility (181 1), as most readers of the novel have 
noted, Marianne Dashwood's sensibility links her to the Romantic 
imagination. Repeatedly described as fanciful, imaginative, emo- 
tionally responsive, and receptive to the natural beauty of trees and 
the aesthetic beauties of Cowper, Marianne is extremely sensitive 
to language, repelled by cliches, and impatient with the polite lies 
of civility. Although quite different from Lady Susan, she too allows 
her lively affections to involve her in an improper amorous involve- 
ment, and her indiscreet behavior is contrasted with that of her 
sister Elinor, who is silent, reserved, and eminently proper. If the 
imagination is linked with Machiavellian evil in Lady Susan, it is 
closely associated with self-destruction in Sense and Sensibility: when 
Elinor and Marianne have to confront the same painful situation — 
betrayal by the men they deemed future husbands — Elinor's stoical 
self-restraint is the strength born of her good sense while Marianne's 
indulgence in sensibility almost causes her own death, the unfettered 
play of her imagination seeming to result in a terrible fever that 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 157 

represents how imaginative women are infected and sickened by 
their dreams. 

Marianne's youthful enthusiasm is very attractive, and the reader, 
like Colonel Brandon, is tempted to find "something so amiable in 
the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give 
way to the reception of more general opinions" (I, chap. 11). But 
give way they apparendy must and evidendy do. Eagerness of fancy 
is a passion like any other, perhaps more imprudent because it is 
not recognized as such. As delightful as it might first seem, moreover, 
it is always shown to be a sign of immaturity, of a refusal to submit. 
Finally this is unbecoming and unproductive in women, who must 
exert their inner resources for pliancy, elasticity of spirit, and accom- 
modation. Sense and Sensibility is an especially painful novel to read 
because Austen herself seems caught between her attracdon to 
Marianne's sincerity and spontaneity, while at the same identifying 
with the civil falsehoods and the reserved, polite silences of Elinor, 
whose art is fittingly portrayed as the painting of screens. 

Pride and Prejudice (1813) continues to associate the perils of the 
imagination with the pitfalls of selfhood, sexuality, and assertion. 
Elizabeth Bennet is her father's favorite daughter because she has in- 
herited his wit. She is talkative, satirical, quick at interpreting appear- 
ances and articulating her judgments, and so she too is contrasted 
to a sensible silent sister, Jane, who is quiet, unwilling to express her 
needs or desires, supportive of all and critical of none. While moral 
Jane remains an invalid, captive at the Bingleys, her satirical sister 
Elizabeth walks two miles along muddy roads to help nurse her. 
While Jane visits the Gardners only to remain inside their house 
waiting hopelessly for the visitors she wishes to receive, Elizabeth 
travels to the Collins' establishment where she visits Lady Catherine. 
While Jane remains at home, lovesick but uncomplaining, Elizabeth 
accompanies the Gardeners on a walking tour of Derbyshire. Jane's 
docility, gendeness, and benevolence are remarkable, for she suffers 
silently throughout the entire plot, until she is finally set free by her 
Prince Charming. In these respects, she adumbrates Jane Fairfax of 
Austen's Emma (1816), another Jane who is totally passive and quiet, 
despite the fact that she is repeatedly humiliated by her lover. 
Indeed, although Jane Fairfax is eventually driven to a gesture of 
revolt — the pathetic decision to endure the "slave-trade" of becoming 



158 Inside the House of Fiction 

a governess rather than wait for Frank Churchill to become her 
husband — she is a paragon of submissive politeness and patience 
throughout her ordeal, so much so that, "wrapped up in a cloak 
of politeness," she was to Emma and even to Mr. Knightley "dis- 
gustingly . . . suspiciously, reserved" (II, chap. 2). 

Just as Jane Bennet forecasts the role and character of Jane 
Fairfax, Elizabeth Bennet shares much with Emma who, perhaps 
more than all the others, demonstrates Austen's ambivalence about 
her imaginative powers, since she created in Emma a heroine whom 
she suspected no one but herself would like.* 8 A player of word 
games, a painter of portraits and a spinner of tales, Emma is clearly 
an avatar of Austen the ardst. And more than all the other playful, 
lively girls, Emma reminds us that the witty woman is responding 
to her own confining situation with words that become her weapon, 
a defense against banality, a way of at least seeming to control her 
life. Like Austen, Emma has at her disposal worn-out, hackneyed 
stories of romance that she is smart enough to resist in her own life. 
If Emma is an artist who manipulates people as if they were charac- 
ters in her own stories, Austen emphasizes not only the immorality 
of this activity, but its cause or motivation : except for placating her 
father, Emma has nothing to do. Given her intelligence and imagina- 
tion, her impatient attempts to transform a mundane reality are 
completely understandable. 

Emma and her friends believe her capable of answering questions 
which puzzle less quick and assured girls, an ability shown to be 
necessary in a world of professions and falsehoods, puzzles, charades, 
and riddles. But word games deceive especially those players who 
think they have discovered the hidden meanings, and Emma misin- 
terprets every riddle. Most of the letters in the novel contain "nothing 
but truth, though there might be some truths not told" (II, chap. 2). 
Because readiness to talk frequently masks reticence to communicate, 
the vast majority of conversations involve characters who not only 
remain unaffected by dialogue, but barely hear each other talking: 
Isabella, Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Elton and Mr. 
Weston are participating in simultaneous soliloquies. The civil 
falsehoods that keep society running make each character a riddle 
to the others, a polite puzzle. With professions of openness Frank 
Churchill has been keeping a secret that threatens to embarrass and 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 159 

pain both Emma and Jane Fairfax. Emma discovers the ambiguous 
nature of discourse that mystifies, withholds, coerces, and lies as 
much as it reveals. 

Yet Austen could not punish her more thoroughly than she does, 
and in this respect too Emma resembles the other imaginative girls. 
For all these heroines are mortified, humiliated, even bullied into 
sense. Austen's heavy attack on Emma, for instance, depends on 
the abject failure of the girl's wit. The very brilliant and assertive 
playfulness that initially marks her as a heroine is finally criticized 
on the grounds that it is self-deluding. Unable to imagine her visions 
into reality, she finds that she has all along been manipulated as a 
character in someone else's fiction. Through Emma, Austen is con- 
fronting the inadequacy of fiction and the pain of the "imaginist" 
who encounters the relentless recalcitrance of the world in which 
she lives, but she is also exposing the vulnerable delusions that Emma 
shares with Catherine Morland before the latter learns that she has 
no story to tell. Not only does the female artist fail, then, her efforts 
are condemned as tyrannical and coercive. Emma feels great self- 
loathing when she discovers how blind she has been : she is "ashamed 
of every sensation but the one revealed to her — her affection for 
Mr. Knightley — Every other part of her mind was disgusting" (III, 
chap. 2). 

Although Emma is the center of Austen's fiction, what she has 
to learn is her commonality with Jane Fairfax, her vulnerability as 
a female. Like the antithetical sisters we have discussed, Jane Fairfax 
and Emma are doubles. Since they are the most accomplished girls 
in Highbury, exactly the same age, suitable companions, the fact 
that they are not friends is in itself quite significant. Emma even 
believes at times that her dislike for Jane is caused by her seeing in 
Jane "the really accomplished young woman which she wanted to 
be thought herself" (II, chap. 2). In fact, she has to succumb to 
Jane's fate, to become her double through the realization that she 
too has been manipulated as a pawn in Frank Churchill's game. 
The seriousness of Emma's assertive playfulness is made clear when 
she behaves rudely, making uncivil remarks at Box Hill, when she 
talks indiscreetly, unwittingly encouraging the advances of Mr. Elton, 
and when she allows her imagination to indulge in rather lewd 
suppositions about the possible sexual intrigues of Jane Fairfax and 



160 Inside the House of Fiction 

a married man. In other words, Emma's imagination has led her 
to the sin of being unladylike, and her complete mortification is a 
prelude to submission as she becomes a friend of Jane Fairfax, at 
one with her too in her realization of her own powerlessness. In this 
respect, Mr. Elton's recitation of a well-known riddle seems ominous: 

My first doth affliction denote, 

Which my second is destin'd to feel 
And my whole is the best antidote 

That affliction to soften and heal. — [I, chap. 9] 

For if the answer is woe/man, then in the process of growing up 
female Emma must be initiated into a secondary role of service and 
silence. 

Similarly, in Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland experiences "the 
liberty which her imagination had dared to take" as a folly which 
makes her feel that "She hated herself more than she could express" 
(II, chap. 10) so that she too is reduced to "silence and sadness" 
(II, chap. 15). Although Marianne Dashwood's sister had admitted 
that "thirty-five and seventeen had better not have anything to do 
with matrimony together" (I, chap. 8), Marianne allows herself at 
the end to be given away to Colonel Brandon as a "reward" (III, 
chap. 14) for his virtuous constancy. At nineteen she finds herself 
"submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties" (III, 
chap. 14). "With such a confederacy against her," the narrator 
asks, "what else could she do?" Even Elizabeth Bennet, who had 
"prided" herself on her "discernment," finds that she had never 
known even herself (II, chap. 13). When "her anger was turned 
against herself" (II, chap. 14), Elizabeth realizes that "she had 
been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd" (II, chap. 13). Significantly, 
"she was humbled, she was grieved ; she repented, though she hardly 
knew of what" (III, chap. 8; italics ours). 

All of these girls learn the necessity of curbing their tongues: 
Marianne is silent when she learns submission and even when "a 
thousand inquiries sprung up from her heart . . . she dared not urge 
one" (III, chap. 10). When she finds that "For herself she was 
humbled; but she was proud of him" (III, chap. 10), Elizabeth 
Bennet displays her maturity by her modest reticence : not only does 
she refrain from telling both her parents about her feelings for Mr. 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 161 

Darcy, she never tells Jane about Mrs. Gardiner's letter or about 
her lover's role in persuading Mr. Bingley not to propose. Whereas 
before she had scorned Mr. Collins's imputation that ladies never 
say what they mean, at the end of Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth 
refuses to answer Lady Catherine and lies to her mother about the 
modves for that lady's visit. Furthermore, Elizabeth checks herself 
with Mr. Darcy, remembering "that he had yet to learn to be 
laughed at, and it was rather too early to begin" (III, chap. 16). 

Emma also refrains from communicating with both Mrs. Elton 
and Jane Fairfax when she learns to behave discreetly. She manages 
to keep Harriet's secret even when M r - Knightley proposes to her. 
"What did she say?" the narrator coyly asks. "Just what she ought, 
of course. A lady always does" (III, chap. 13). And at this point 
the novelist indicates her own ladylike discretion as she too refrains 
from detailing the personal scene explicitly. The polite talk of ladies, 
as Robin Lakoff has shown, is devised "to prevent the expression 
of strong statements," ** but such politeness commits both author 
and heroine alike to their resolve "of being humble and discreet 
and repressing imagination" (I, chap. 17). The novelist who has 
been fascinated with double-talk from the very beginning of her 
wriring career sees the silences, evasions, and lies of women as an 
inescapable sign of their requisite sense of doubleness. 

Austen's self-division — her fascination with the imaginadon and 
her anxiety that it is unfeminine — is part of her consciousness of the 
unique dilemma of all women, who must acquiesce in their status 
as objects after an adolescence in which they experience themselves 
as free agents. Simone de Beauvoir expresses the question asked by 
all Austen's heroines : "if I can accomplish my desdny only as the 
Other, how shall I give up my Ego?"** Like Emma, Austen's heroines 
are made to view their adolescent erodcism, their imaginative and 
physical activity, as an outgrown vitality incompadble with womanly 
restraint and survival: "how improperly had she been acdng. . . . 
How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling, 
had been her conduct ! What blindness, what madness, had led her 
on!" (Ill, chap. 11). The initiation into conscious acceptance of 
powerlessness is always mortifying, for it involves the fall from 
authority into the acceptance of one's status as a mere character, 
as well as the humiliating acknowledgment on the part of the witty 



162 Inside the House of Fiction 

sister that she must become her self-denying, quiet double. Assertion, 
imagination, and wit are tempting forms of self-definition which 
encourage each of the lively heroines to think that she can master 
or has mastered the world, but this is proven a dangerous illusion 
for women who must accept the fate of being mastered, and so the 
heroine learns the benefits of modesty, reticence, and patience. 

If we recall Sophia's dying advice to Laura in Love and Freindship — 
"Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint" — it becomes 
clear that Austen is haunted by both these options and that she 
seems to feel that fainting, even if it only means playing at being 
dead, is a more viable solution for women who are acceptable to 
men only when they inhabit the glass coffin of silence, stillness, second- 
ariness. At the same time, however, Austen never renounces the 
subjectivity of what her heroines term their own "madness" until 
the end of each of their stories. The complementarity of the lively 
and the quiet sisters, moreover, suggests that these two inadequate 
responses to the female situation are inseparable. We have already 
seen that Marianne Dashwood's situation when she is betrayed by 
the man she considers her fiance is quite similar to her sister's, and 
many critics have shown that Elinor has a great deal of sensibility, 
while Marianne has some sense.** Certainly Elizabeth and Jane 
Bennet, like Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax, are confronted 
with similar dilemmas even as they eventually reach similar strategies 
for survival. In consistently drawing our attention to the friendship 
and reciprocity between sisters, Austen holds out the hope that 
maturity can bring women consciousness of self as subject and object. 

Although all women may be, as she is, split between the conflicting 
desire for assertion in the world and retreat into the security of the 
home — speech and silence, independence and dependency — Austen 
implies that this psychic conflict can be resolved. Because the rela- 
tionship between personal identity and social role is so problematic 
for women, the emerging self can only survive with a sustained 
double vision. As Austen's admirers have always appreciated, she 
does write out accommodations, even when admitting their cost: 
since the polarities of fainting and going mad are extremes that 
tempt but destroy women, Austen describes how it is possible for a 
kind of dialectic of self-consciousness to emerge. While this aspect 
of female consciousness has driven many women to schizophrenia, 



Jane Austen 's Cover Story 163 

Austen's heroines live and flourish because of their contradictory 
projections. When the heroines are able to live Christian lives, doing 
unto others as they would be done, the daughters are ready to 
become wives. Self-consciousness liberates them from the self, en- 
abling them to be exquisitely sensitive to the needs and responses 
of others. This is what distinguishes them from the comic victims of 
Austen's wit, who are either imprisoned in officious egoism or 
incapacitated by lethargic indolence: for Austen selfishness and 
selflessness are virtually interchangeable. 

Only the mature heroines can sympathize and identify with the 
self-important meddlers and the somnambulant valetudinarians who 
abound in Austen's novels. But their maturity implies a fallen world 
and the continual possibility, indeed the necessity, of self-division, 
duplicity, and double-talk. As the narrator of Emma explains, "Sel- 
dom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human dis- 
closure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised 
or a little mistaken" (III, chap. 13). Using silence as a means of 
manipulation, passivity as a tactic to gain power, submission as a 
means of attaining the only control available to them, the heroines 
seem to submit as they get what they both want and need. On the 
one hand, this process and its accompanying sense of doubleness is 
psychologically and ethically beneficial, even a boon to women who 
are raised by it to real heroism. On the other hand, it is a painful 
degradation for heroines immersed or immured in what de Beauvoir 
would call their own "alterity." 

The mortifications of Emma, Elizabeth, and Marianne are, then, 
the necessary accompaniment to the surrender of self-responsibility 
and definition. While Marianne Brandon, Elizabeth Darcy, and 
Emma Knightley never exist except in the slightly malevolent futu- 
rity of all happily-ever-afters, surely they would have learned the 
intricate gestures of subordination. And in Mansfield Park (1814), 
where Austen examines most carefully the price of doubleness, the 
mature author dramatizes how the psychic split so common in women 
can explode into full-scale fragmentation when reintegration becomes 
impossible. Nowhere in her fiction is the conflict between self and 
other portrayed with more sensitivity to the possibility of the per- 
sonality fragmenting schizophrenically than in this novel in which 
Austen seems the most conflicted about her own talents. 



164 Inside the House of Fiction 

Fanny Price and Mary Crawford enact what has developed into 
a familiar conflict in Austen's fiction. Fanny loves the country, 
where she lives quietly and contentedly, conservative in her tastes, 
revering old buildings and trees, and acquiescent in her behavior, 
submitting to indignities from every member of the household with 
patient humility. But "what was tranquillity and comfort to Fanny 
was tediousness and vexation to Mary" (II, chap. 11), because 
differences of disposition, habit, and circumstance make the latter 
a talented and restless girl, a harpist, a superb card player, and a 
witty conversationalist capable of parody and puns. In the famous 
play episode the two are most obviously contrasted: exemplary 
Fanny refuses to play a part, deeming the theatrical improper in 
Sir Bertram's absence, while Mary enters into the rehearsals with 
vivacity and anticipation of the performance precisely because it 
gives her the opportunity to dramatize, under the cover of the 
written script, her own amorous feelings toward Edmund. This use 
of art links Mary to Austen in a way further corroborated by bio- 
graphical accounts of Austen's delight as a girl in such home theatri- 
cals. While many critics agree that Austen sets out to celebrate 
Fanny's responsiveness to nature,* 7 in fact it is Mary who most 
resembles her creator in seeing "inanimate nature, with little obser- 
vation; her attention was all for men and women, her talents for the 
light and lively" (I, chap. 8). 

In spite of their antithetical responses, Mary and Fanny, like the 
other "sisters" in Austen's fiction, have much in common. Both are 
visitors in the country and virtually parendess outsiders at Mansfield 
Park. Both have disreputable family histories which they seek to 
escape in part through their contact with the Bertram household. 
Both are loving sisters to brothers very much in need of their counsel 
and support. Both are relatively poor, dependent on male relatives 
for financial security. While Mary rides Fanny's horse, Fanny wears 
what she thinks is one of Mary's necklaces. While Fanny loves to 
hear Mary's music, Mary consistently seeks out Fanny's advice. 
They are the only two young people aware that Henry is flirting 
outrageously with both Bertram sisters and thereby creating terrible 
jealousies. Both see Rushworth as the fool that he is, both are aware 
of the potential impropriety of the play, and both are in love with 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 165 

Edmund Bertram. Indeed, each seems incomplete because she lacks 
precisely the qualities so fully embodied by the other: thus, Fanny 
seems constrained, lacking nerve and will, while Mary is insensitive 
to the needs and feelings of her friends; one is too silent, the other 
too talkative. 

Perhaps Fanny does learn enough from Mary to become a true 
Austen heroine. Not only does she "come out" at a dance in her 
honor, but she does so in a state "nearly approaching high spirits" 
(II, chap. 10). She rejects the attempts at persuasion made by Sir 
Thomas and he accuses her of "wilfulness of temper, self-conceit, 
and . . . independence of spirit" (III, chap. I). In defending herself 
against the unwelcome addresses of Henry Crawford, Fanny also 
speaks more, and more angrily, than she ever has before. Finally, 
she does liberate herself from the need for Edmund's approval, 
specifically when she questions his authority and becomes "vexed 
into displeasure, and anger, against Edmund" (III, chap. 8). Recent- 
ly, two feminist critics have persuasively argued that, when Fanny 
refuses to marry for social advantage, she becomes the moral model 
for all the other characters, challenging their social system and 
exposing its flimsy values.* 8 And certainly Fanny does become a 
kind of authority figure for her younger sister Susan, whom she 
eventually liberates from the noisy confinement of the Portsmouth 
household. 

Yet, trapped in angelic reserve, Fanny can never assert or enliven 
herself except in extreme situations where she only succeeds through 
passive resistance. A model of domestic virtue — "dependent, help- 
less, friendless, neglected, forgotten" (II, chap. 7) — she resembles 
Snow White not only in her passivity but in her invalid deathliness, 
her immobility, her pale purity. And Austen is careful to show us 
that Fanny can only assert herself through silence, reserve, recalci- 
trance, and even cunning. Since, as Leo Bersani has argued, "non- 
being is the ultimate prudence in the world of Mansfield Park,"** 
Fanny is destined to become the next Lady Bertram, following the 
example of Sir Thomas's corpselike wife. With purity that seems 
prudish and reserve bordering on hypocrisy, Fanny is far less likeable 
than Austen's other heroines : as Frank Churchill comments of Jane 
Fairfax, "There is safety in reserve, but no attraction" (II, chap. 6). 



16 6 Inside the House of Fiction 

Obedience, tears, pallor, and martyrdom are effective but not 
especially endearing methods of survival, in part because one senses 
some pride in Fanny's self-abasement. 

If Fanny Price seems unable fully to actualize herself as an 
authentic subject, Mary Crawford fails to admit her contingency. 
Because of this, like the Queen who insists on telling and living her 
own lively stories, she is exorcised from Mansfield Park, both the 
place and the plot, in a manner that dramatizes Austen's obsessive 
anxiety over Mary's particular brand of impropriety — her audacious 
speech. When Mary's liberty deteriorates into license and her self- 
actualization into selfishness, Edmund can only defend her by 
claiming that "She does not think evil, but she speaks it — speaks it 
in playfulness — " and he admits this means "the mind itself was 
tainted" (II, chap. 9). Although Mary's only crimes do, in fact, 
seem to be verbal, we are told repeatedly that her mind has been 
"led astray and bewildered, and without any suspicion of being so ; 
darkened, yet fancying itself light" (III, chap. 6). Because she would 
excuse as "folly" what both Fanny and Edmund term "evil," her 
language gives away her immodesty, her "blunted delicacy" (III, 
chap. 16). Edmund says in horror, "No reluctance, no horror, no 
feminine — shall I say? no modest loathings!" (Ill, chap. 16). It is, 
significantly, "the manner in which she spoke" (III, chap. 16) that 
gives the greatest offense and determines Edmund's final rejection. 

When, during the episode of the theatricals, Fanny silently plays 
the role of the angel by refusing to play, Mary Crawford metamor- 
phoses into a siren as she coquettishly persuades Edmund to partici- 
pate in the very theatricals he initially condemned as improper. 
Fanny knows that in part her own reticence is caused by fear of 
exposing herself, but this does not stop her from feeling extremely 
jealous of Mary, not only because Mary is a fine actress but because 
she has chosen to play a part that allows her to express her otherwise 
silent opposition to Edmund's choice of a clerical profession. Here- 
tical, worldly, cynical in her disdain for the institutions of the Church, 
Mary is a damned Eve who offers to seduce prelapsarian Edmund 
Bertram in the garden of the green room, when the father is away 
on a business trip, and she almost succeeds, at least until the absent 
father reappears to burn all the scripts, to repress this libidinal 
outbreak in paradise and call for music which "helped conceal the 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 167 

want of real harmony" (II, chap. 2). Since the rehearsals have 
brought nothing but restlessness, rivalry, vexation, pettiness, and 
sexual license, Lover's Vows illustrates Austen's belief that self- 
expression and artistry are dangerously attractive precisely because 
they liberate actors from the rules, roles, social obligations, and 
familial bonds of every day life. 30 

Mary's seductive allure is the same as her brother Henry's. He 
is the best actor, both on and off the stage, because he has the ability 
to be "every thing to every body" (II, chap. 13). But he can "do 
nothing without a mixture of evil" (II, chap. 13). Attractive precisely 
because of his protean ability to change himself into a number of 
attractive personages, Henry is an impersonator who degenerates 
into an imposter, npt unlike Frank Churchill, who is also "acting a 
part or making a parade of insincere professions" (£, II, chap. 6). 
Indeed, Henry is a good representative of the kind of young man 
with whom each of the heroines falls briefly in love before she is 
finally disillusioned : Willoughby, Wickham, Frank Churchill, Henry 
Crawford, and Mr. Elliot are eminently agreeable because they are 
self-changers, self-shapers. In many respects they are attractive to 
the heroines because somehow they act as doubles: younger men 
who must learn to please, narcissists, they experience traditionally 
"feminine" powerlessness and they are therefore especially interested 
in becoming the creators of themselves. 

In Mansfield Park, however, Austen defines this self-creating spirit 
as a "bewitching" (II, chap. 13) "infection" (II, chap. 1), and the 
epidemic restlessness represented by the Crawfords is seen as far 
more dangerous than Fanny's invalid passivity. Fanny's rejection of 
Henry represents, then, her censure of his presumptuous attempt to 
author his own life, his past history, and his present fictional identities. 
Self-divided, indulging his passions, alienated from authority, full of 
ambition, and seeking revenge for past injuries, the false young man 
verges on the Satanic. While he manages to thrive in his own fashion, 
finding a suitable lover or wife and generally making his fortune in 
the process, his way cannot be the Austen heroine's. Although his 
crimes are real actions while hers are purely rhetorical, she is more 
completely censured because her liberties more seriously defy her 
social role. 

When her Adam refuses to taste the fruit offered by Mary Crawford, 



168 Inside the House of Fiction 

Austen follows the example of Samuel Richardson in her favorite 
of his novels, Sir Charles Grandison, where Harriet draws a compli- 
mentary analogy between Sir Charles and Adam : the former would 
not have been so compliant as to taste the forbidden fruit; instead 
he would have left it to God to annihilate the first Eve and supply 
a second. 81 Just as Fanny sees through the play actor, Henry Craw- 
ford, to the role-player and hypocrite, Edmund finally recognizes 
Mary's playfulness as her refusal to submit to the categories of her 
culture, a revolt that is both attractive and immoral because it 
gains her the freedom to become whatever she likes, even to choose 
not to submit to one identity but to try out a variety of voices. For 
all these reasons, she has to be annihilated. But, unlike Richardson, 
Austen in destroying this unrepentent, imaginative, and assertive 
girl is demonstrating her own self-division. 

In all six of Austen's novels women who are refused the means of 
self-definition are shown to be fatally drawn to the dangerous delights 
of impersonation and pretense. But Austen's profession depends on 
just these disguises. What else, if not impersonation, is characteriza- 
tion? What is plot, if not pretense? In all the novels, the narrator's 
voice is witty, assertive, spirited, independent, even (as D. W. Harding 
has shown) arrogant and nasty. 3 * Poised between the subjectivity of 
lyric and the objectivity of drama, the novel furnishes Austen with 
a unique opportunity: she can create Mary Crawford's witty letters 
or Emma's brilliant retorts, even while rejecting them as improper; 
furthermore, she can reprove as indecent in a heroine what is neces- 
sary to an author. Authorship for Austen is an escape from the very 
restraints she imposes on her female characters. And in this respect 
she seems typical, for women may have contributed so significantly 
to narrative fiction precisely because it effectively objectifies, even 
as it sustains and hides, the subjectivity of the author. Put another 
way, in the novels Austen questions and criticizes her own aesthetic 
and ironic sensibilities, noting the limits and asserting the dangers 
of an imagination undisciplined by the rigors of art. 

Using her characters to castigate the imaginative invention that 
informs her own novels, Austen is involved in a contradiction that, 
as we have seen, she approves as the only solution available to her 
heroines. Just as they manage to survive only by seeming to submit, 
she succeeds in maintaining her double consciousness in fiction that 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 169 

proclaims its docility and restraint even as it uncovers the delights 
of assertion and rebellion. Indeed the comedy of Austen's novels 
explores the tensions between the freedom of her art and the depen- 
dency of her characters: while they stutter and sputter and lapse 
into silence and even hasten to perfect felicity, she attains a woman's 
language that is magnificently duplicitous. In this respect, Austen 
serves as a paradigm of the literary ladies who would emerge so 
successfully and plentifully in the mid-nineteenth century, popular 
lady novelists like Rhoda Broughton, Charlotte Mary Yonge, Home 
Lee, and Mrs. Craik 33 who strenuously suppressed awareness of how 
their own professional work called into question traditional female 
roles. Deeply conservative as their content appears to be, however, 
it frequendy retains traces of the original duplicity so manifest in 
its origin, even as it demonstrates their own exuberant evasion of 
the inescapable limits they prescribe for their model heroines. 



Although Austen clearly escapes the House of Prose that confines 
her heroines by making her story out of their renunciation of story- 
telling, she also dwells in the freer prospects of Emily Dickinson's 
"Possibility" by identifying not only with her model heroines, but 
also with less obvious, nastier, more resilient and energetic female 
characters who enact her rebellious dissent from her culture, a 
dissent, as we have seen, only partially obscured by the "blotter" 
of her plot. Many critics have already noticed duplicity in the 
"happy endings" of Austen's novels in which she brings her couples 
to the brink of bliss in such haste, or with such unlikely coincidences, 
or with such sarcasm that the entire message seems undercut 34 : the 
implication remains that a girl without the aid of a benevolent 
narrator would never find a way out of either her mortifications or 
her parents' house. 

Perhaps less obvious instances of Austen's duplicity occur in her 
representation of a series of extremely powerful women each of 
whom acts out the rebellious anger so successfully repressed by the 
heroine and the author. Because they so rarely appear and so infre- 
quendy speak in their own voices, these furious females remain 
secret presences in the plots. Not only do they play a less prominent 
role in the novels than their function in the plot would seem to 



170 Inside the House of Fiction 

require; buried or killed or banished at the end of the story, they 
seem to warrant this punishment by their very unattractiveness. 
Like Lady Susan, they are mothers or surrogate mothers who seek 
to destroy their docile children. Widows who are no longer defined 
by men simply because they have survived the male authorities in 
their lives, these women can exercise power even if they can never 
legitimize it; thus they seem both pushy and dangerous. Yet if their 
energy appears destructive and disagreeable, that is because this is 
the mechanism by which Austen disguises the most assertive aspect 
of herself as the Other. We shall see that these bitchy women enact 
impulses of revolt that make them doubles not only for the heroines 
but for their author as well. 

We have seen Austen at her most conflicted in Mansfield Park, so 
perhaps it is here that we can begin to understand how she quietly 
yet forcefully undercuts her own moral. Probably the most obnoxious 
character in the book, Aunt Norris, is clearly meant to be a dark 
parody of Mary Crawford, revealing — as she does — how easily 
Mary's girlish liveliness and materialism could degenerate into 
meddlesome, officious penny-pinching. But, as nasty as she is repeat- 
edly shown and said to be when she tries to manage and manipulate, 
to condescend to Fanny, to save herself some money, Aunt Norris 
is in some ways castigated for moral failures which are readily 
understandable, if not excusable. After all, she is living on a small, 
fixed income, and if she uses flattery to gain pecuniary help, her 
pleasures are dependent on receiving it. Like Fanny Price, Aunt 
Norris knows that she must please and placate Sir Thomas. Even 
when he gives "advice," both accept it as "the advice of absolute 
power" (II, chap. 18). Perhaps one reason for her implacable hatred 
of Fanny is that Aunt Norris sees in her a rival for Sir Thomas's 
protection, another helpless and useful dependent. Furthermore, 
like Fanny, Aunt Norris uses submission as a strategy to get her 
own way: acquiescing to the power in authority, she manages to 
talk her brother-in-law into all her schemes. 

Unlike "good" Lady Bertram, Aunt Norris is an embittered, 
manipulative, pushy female who cannot allow other people to live 
their own lives. At least, this is how these sisters first strike us, until 
we remember that, for all her benign dignity, Lady Bertram does 
nothing but sit "nicely dressed on a sofa, doing some long piece of 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 171 

needlework, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug 
than her children" (I, chap. 2). Indeed, the contrast between her 
total passivity and Aunt Norris's indiscriminate exertions recalls 
again the options described by Sophia in Love and Freindship — 
fainting or running mad. Like all the other "good" mothers in 
Austen's fiction who are passive because dead, dying, or dumb, 
Lady Bertram teaches the necessity of submission, the all-importance 
of a financially sound marriage, and the empty-headedness that 
goes with these values. For all her noisy bustling, Aunt Norris is a 
much more loving mother to Lady Bertram's daughters. If she 
indulges them, it is in part out of genuine affection and loyalty. 
And as she herself actively lives her own life and pursues her own 
ends, Aunt Norris quite naturally identifies with her headstrong 
nieces. Unlike the figure of the "good" mother, the figure of bad 
Aunt Norris implies that female strength, exertion, and passion are 
necessary for survival and pleasure. 

Instead of abandoning Maria after the social disgrace of the 
elopement and divorce, Aunt Norris goes off to live with her as her 
surrogate mother. Although she is thereby punished and driven 
from Mansfield Park, Aunt Norris (we cannot help suspecting) is 
probably as relieved to have escaped the dampening effect of Sir 
Thomas's sober rule as he is to have rid himself of the one person 
who has managed to assert herself against his wishes, to evade his 
control. This shrew is still talking at the end of the book, untamed 
and presumably untameable. As if to authenticate her completely 
unacceptable admiration for this kind of woman, Austen constructs 
a plot which quite consistently finds its impetus in Aunt Norris. It 
is she, for instance, who decides to take Fanny from her home and 
bring her to Mansfield ; she places Fanny in Sir Thomas's household 
and allocates her inferior status ; she rules Mansfield in Sir Thomas's 
absence and allows the play to progress; she plans and executes the 
visit to Southerton that creates the marriage between Maria and 
Mr. Rushworth. Quite openly dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure 
and activity, especially the joy of controlling other people's lives, 
Aunt Norris is a parodic surrogate for the author, a suitable double 
whose manipulations match those of Aunt Jane. 

As vilified as she is, Aunt Norris was the character most often 
praised and enjoyed by Jane Austen's contemporaries, to the author's 



/ 72 Inside the House of Fiction 

delight. 85 Hers is one of the most memorable voices in Mansfield 
Park. She resembles not only the hectic, scheming Queen, stepmother 
to Snow White, but also the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The 
Magic Flute. Actually, all the angry dowagers in Austen's novels 
represent a threat to the enlightened reason of the male god who 
eventually wins the heroine only by banishing the forces of female 
sexuality, capriciousness, and loquacity. But, as in The Magic Flute, 
where the Queen of the Night is carried offstage still singing her 
exuberantly strenuous resistence, women like Aunt Norris are never 
really completely stifled. The despised Mrs. Ferrars of Sense and 
Sensibility, for example, exacts the punishment which Elinor Dash- 
wood could not help but wish on a man who has been selfishly 
deceiving her for the entire novel. By tampering with the patriarchal 
line of inheritence, Mrs. Ferrars proves that the very forms valued 
by Elinor are arbitrary. But even though Sense and Sensibility ends 
with the overt message that young women like Marianne and Elinor 
must submit to the powerful conventions of society by finding a 
male protector, Mrs. Ferrars and her scheming protegee Lucy Steele 
prove that women can themselves become agents of repression, 
manipulators of conventions, and survivors. 

Most of these powerful widows would agree with Lady Catherine 
De Bourgh in seeing "no occasion for entailing estates from the 
female lines" (PP, II, 6). Opposed to the very basis of patriarchy, 
the exclusive right of male inheritence, Lady Catherine quite pre- 
dictably earns the vilification always allotted by the author to the 
representatives of matriarchal power. She is shown to be arrogant, 
officious, egotistical, and rude as she patronizes all the other characters 
in the novel. Resembling Lady Susan in her disdain for her own pale, 
weak, passive daughter, Lady Catherine delights in managing the 
affairs of others. Probably most unpleasant when she opposes Eliza- 
beth's right to marry Darcy, she questions Elizabeth's birth and 
breeding by admitting that Elizabeth is "a gentleman's daughter," 
but demanding, "who was your mother?" (Ill, chap. 14). 

As dreadful as she seems to be, however, Lady Catherine is herself 
in some ways an appropriate mother to Elizabeth because the two 
women are surprisingly similar. Her ladyship points this out herself 
when she says to Elizabeth, "You give your opinion very decidedly 



Jane A usten 's Cover Story J 73 

for so young a person" (II, chap. 6). Both speak authoritatively of 
matters on which neither is an authority. Both are sarcastic and 
certain in their assessment of people. Elizabeth describes herself to 
Darcy by asserting, "There is a stubbornness about me that never 
can bear to be frightened at the will of others" (II, chap. 8), and in 
this respect too she resembles Lady Catherine, whose courage is 
indomitable. Finally, these are the only two women in the novel 
capable of feeling and expressing genuine anger, although it is up to 
Lady Catherine to articulate the rage against entailment that Eliza- 
beth must feel since it has so rigidly restricted her own and her 
sisters' lives. When Elizabeth and Lady Catherine meet in conflict, 
each retains her decided resolution of carrying her own purpose. In 
all her objections to Elizabeth's match with Darcy, Lady Catherine 
only articulates what Elizabeth has herself thought on the subject, 
that her mother is an unsuitable relation for him and her sister an 
even less appropriate connection. Highly incensed and unresponsive 
to advice, Elizabeth resembles her interlocutor; it is fitting not only 
that she takes the place meant for Lady Catherine's daughter when 
she marries Darcy, but that she also sees to it that her husband is 
persuaded to entertain his aunt at Pemberley. As Darcy and Elizabeth 
both realize, Lady Catherine has been the author of their marriage, 
bringing about the first proposal by furnishing the occasion and place 
for meetings, and the second by endeavoring to separate them when 
she actually communicates Elizabeth's renewed attraction to a suitor 
waiting for precisely such encouragement. 

The vitriolic shrew is so discreetly hidden in Emma that she never 
appears at all, yet again she is the causal agent of the plot. Like her 
predecessors, Mrs. Churchill is a proud, arrogant, and capricious 
woman who uses all means, including reports of her poor health, to 
elicit attention and obedience from her family. In fact, only her 
death — which clears the way for the marriage of Frank Churchill to 
Jane Fairfax — convinces them that her nervous disorders were more 
than selfish, imaginary complaints. Actually Mrs. Churchill can be 
viewed as the cause of all the deceit practiced by the lovers inasmuch 
as their secret engagement is a response to her disapproval of the 
match. Thus this disagreeable women with "no more heart than a 
stone to people in general, and the devil of a temper" (I, chap. 14) 



174 Inside the House of Fiction 



is the "invisible presence" which, as W.J. Harvey explains, "enables 
Jane Austen to embody that aspect of our intuition of reality summed 
up by Auden — 'we are lived by powers we do not understand.' " as 

But Mrs. Churchill is more than the representative of the unpre- 
dictable contingency of reality. On the one hand, she displays an 
uncanny and ominous resemblance to Jane Fairfax, who will also be 
a penniless upstart when she marries and who is also subject to 
nervous headaches and fevers. Ma Churchill, we are told by Mr. 
Weston, "is as thorough a fine lady as anybody ever beheld" (II, 
chap. 18), so it is quite fitting that polite Jane Fairfax becomes the 
next Mrs. Churchill and inherits that lady's jewels. On the other 
hand, Mrs. Churchill seems much like Emma, who is also involved in 
becoming a pattern lady: selfish in their very imaginings, both have 
the power of having too much their own way, both are convinced 
of their superiority in talent, elegance of mind, fortune, and conse- 
quence, and both want to be first in society where they can enjoy 
assigning subservient parts to those in their company. 

The model lady haunts all the characters of Emma, evoking "deli- 
cate plants" to Mr. Woodhouse (II, chap. 16) and the showy finery 
of Selena for Mrs. Elton. But it is Mrs. Churchill who illustrates the 
bankruptcy of the ideal, for she is not only a monitory image of what 
Austen's heroines could be, she is also a double of what they are 
already fast becoming. If Mrs. Churchill represents Austen's guilt at 
her own authorial control, she also reminds us that feminine propriety, 
reserve, and politeness can give way to bitchiness since the bitch is 
what the young lady's role and values imply from the beginning, 
built — as we have seen them to be — out of complicity, manipulation, 
and deceit. At the same time, however, Mrs. Churchill is herself the 
victim of her own ladylike silences, evasions, and lies: no one takes 
seriously her accounts of her own ill health, no one believes that her 
final illness is more than a manipulative fiction, and her death — one 
of the few to occur in Austen's mature fiction — is an ominous illustra- 
tion of feminine vulnerability that Austen would more fully explore 
in her last novel. 



It is not only Austen's mad matriarchs who reflect her discomfort 
with the glass coffin of female submission. Her last completed novel, 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 175 

Persuasion (1818), focuses on an angelically quiet heroine who has 
given up her search for a story and has thereby effectively killed her- 
self off. Almost as if she were reviewing the implications of her own 
plots, Austen explores in Persuasion the effects on women of submission 
to authority and the renunciation of one's life story. Eight years 
before the novel begins, Anne Elliot had been persuaded to renounce 
her romance with Captain Wentworth, but this decision sickened her 
by turning her into a nonentity. Forced into "knowing [her] own 
nothingness" (I, chap. 6), Anne is a "nobody with either father or 
sister" so her word has "no weight" (I, chap. 1). An invisible observer 
who tends to fade into the background, she is frequently afraid to 
move lest she should be seen. Having lost the "bloom" of her youth, 
she is but a pale vestige of what she had been and realizes that her 
lover "should not have known [her] again" (I, chap. 7), their rela- 
tionship being "now nothing!" Anne Elliot is the ghost of her own 
dead self; through her, Austen presents a personality haunted with 
a sense of menace. 

At least one reason why Anne has deteriorated into a ghostly 
insubstantiality is that she is a dependent female in a world symbolized 
by her vain and selfish aristocratic father, who inhabits the mirrored 
dressing room of Kellynch Hall. It is significant that Persuasion begins 
with her father's book, the Baronetage, which is described as "the book 
of books" (I, chap. 1) because it symbolizes male authority, patri- 
archal history in general, and her father's family history in particular. 
Existing in it as a first name and birth date in a family line that 
concludes with the male heir presumptive, William Walter Elliot, 
Esq., Anne has no reality until a husband's name can be affixed to 
her own. But Anne's name is a new one in the Baronetage: the history 
of this ancient, respectable line of heirs records "all the Marys and 
Elizabeths they had married" (I, chap. 1), as if calling our attention 
to the hopeful fact that, unlike her sisters Mary and Elizabeth, Anne 
may not be forced to remain a character within this "book of books." 
And, in fact, Anne will reject the economic and social standards 
represented by the Baronetage, deciding, by the end of her process of 
personal development, that not she but the Dowager Viscountess 
Dalrymple and her daughter the Honourable Miss Carteret are 
"nothing" (II, chap. 4). She will also discover that Captain Went- 
worth is"no longer nobody" (II, chap. 12), and, even more signi- 



176 Inside the House of Fiction 

ficantly, she will insist on her ability to seek and find "at least the 
comfort of telling the whole story her own way" (II, chap. 9). 

But before Anne can become somebody, she must confront what 
being a nobody means: "I'm Nobody!" (J. 228), Emily Dickinson 
could occasionally avow, and certainly, by choosing not to have a 
story of her own, Anne seems to have decided to dwell in Dickinson's 
realm of "Possibility," for what Austen demonstrates through her is 
that the person who has not become anybody is haunted by every- 
body. Living in a world of her father's mirrors, Anne confronts the 
several selves she might have become and discovers that they all 
reveal the same story of the female fall from authority and autonomy. 

As a motherless girl, Anne is tempted to become her own mother, 
although she realizes that her mother lived invisibly, unloved, within 
Sir Walter's house. Since Anne could marry Mr. Elliot and become 
the future Lady Elliot, she has to confront her mother's unhappy 
marriage as a potential life story not very different from that of 
Catherine Morland's Mrs. Tilney. At the same time, however, since 
serviceable Mrs. Clay is an unattached female who aspires to her 
mother's place in the family as her father's companion and her sister 
Elizabeth's intimate, Anne realizes that she could also become patient 
Penelope Clay, for she too understands "the art of pleasing" (I, chap. 
2), of making herself useful. When Anne goes to Uppercross, more- 
over, she functions something like Mrs. Clay, "being too much in 
the secret of the complaints" of each of the tenants of both households 
(I, chap. 6), and trying to flatter or placate each and all into good 
humor. The danger exists, then, that Anne's sensitivity and selfless- 
ness could degenerate into Mrs. Clay's ingratiating, hypocritical 
service. 

Of course, Mary Musgrove's situation is also a potential identity 
for Anne, since Charles had actually asked for Anne's hand in 
marriage before he settled on her younger sister, and since Mary 
resembles Anne in being one of Sir Walter's unfavored daughters. 
Indeed, Mary's complaint that she is "always the last of my family 
to be noticed" (II, chap. 6) could easily be voiced by Anne. Bitter 
about being nobody, Mary responds to domestic drudgery with 
"feminine" invalidism that is an extension of Anne's sickening self- 
doubt, as well as the only means at Mary's disposal of using her 
imagination to add some drama and importance to her life. Mary's 



Jane Austen 's Cover Story 1 77 

hypochondria reminds us that Louisa Musgrove provides a kind of 
paradigm for all these women when she literally falls from the Cobb 
and suffers from a head injury resulting in exceedingly weak nerves. 
Because incapacitated Louisa is first attracted to Captain Wentworth 
and finally marries Captain Benwick, whose first attentions had been 
given to Anne, she too is clearly an image of what Anne might have 
become. 

Through both Mary and Louisa, then, Austen illustrates how 
growing up female constitutes a fall from freedom, autonomy, and 
strength into debilitating, degrading, ladylike dependency. In direct 
contradiction to Captain Wentworth's sermon in the hedgerow, 
Louisa discovers that even firmness cannot save her from such a fall. 
Indeed, it actually precipitates it, and she discovers that her fate is 
not to jump from the stiles down the steep flight of seaside stairs but 
to read love poetry quiedy in the parlor with a suitor suitably solici- 
tous for her sensitive nerves. While Louisa's physical fall and sub- 
sequent illness reinforce Anne's belief that female asserdon and im- 
petuosity must be fatal, they also return us to the elegiac autumnal 
landscape that reflects Anne's sense of her own diminishment, the 
loss she experiences since her story is "now nothing." 

Anne lives in a world of mirrors both because she could have 
become most of the women in the novel and. as the title suggests, 
because all the characters present her with their personal preferences 
rationalized into principles by which they attempt to persuade her. 
She is surrounded by other people's versions of her story and offered 
coercive advice by Sir Walter, Captain Wentworth, Charles Mus- 
grove, Mrs. Musgrove, Lady Russell, and Mrs. Smith. Eventually, 
indeed, the very presence of another person becomes oppressive for 
Anne, since everyone but she is convinced that his or her version of 
reality is the only valid one. Only Anne has a sense of the different, 
if equally valid, perspectives of the various families and individuals 
among which she moves. Like Catherine Morland, she struggles 
against other people's fictional use and image of her; and finally she 
penetrates to the secret of patriarchy through absolutely no skill of 
detection on her own part. Just as Catherine blunders on the secret 
of the ancestral mansion to understand the arbitrary power of 
General Tilney, who does not mean what he says, Anne stumbles 
fortuitously on the secret of the heir to Kellynch Hall, William Elliot, 



178 Inside the House of Fiction 

who had married for money and was very unkind to his first wife. 
Mr. Elliot's "manoevres of selfishness and duplicity must ever be 
revolting" (II, chap. 7) to Anne, who comes to believe that "the 
evil" of this suitor could easily result in "irremediable mischief" 
(II, chap. 10). 

For all of Austen's heroines, as Mr. Darcy explains, "detection 
could not be in [their] power, and suspicion certainly not in [their] 
inclination" (II, chap. 3). Yet Anne does quietly and attentively 
watch and listen and judge the members of her world and, as Stuart 
Tave has shown, she increasingly exerts herself to speak out, only 
gradually to discover that she is being heard.' 7 Furthermore, in her 
pilgrimage from Kellynch Hall to Upper Cross and Lyme to Bath, 
the landscapes she encounters function as a kind of psychic geography 
of her development so that, when the withered hedgerows and tawny 
autumnal meadows are replaced by the invigorating breezes and 
flowing tides of Lyme, we are hardly surprised that Anne's bloom is 
restored (I, chap. 12). Similarly, when Anne gets to Bath, this woman 
who has heard and overheard others has trouble listening because 
she is filled with her own feelings, and she decides that "one half of 
her should not be always so much wiser than the other half, or always 
suspecting the other half of being worse than it was" (II, chap. 7). 
Therefore, in a room crowded with talking people, Anne manages 
to signal to Captain Wentworth her lack of interest in Mr. Elliot 
through her assertion that she has no pleasure in parties at her father's 
house. "She had spoken it," the narrator emphasizes; if "she trembled 
when it was done, conscious that her words were listened to" (II, 
chap. 10), this is because Anne has actually "never since the loss of 
her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or en- 
couraged" (I, chap. 6). 

The fact that her mother's loss initiated her invisibility and silence 
is important in a book that so closely associates the heroine's felicity 
with her ability to articulate her sense of herself as a woman. Like 
Elinor Tilney, who feels that "A mother could have been always 
present. A mother would have been a constant friend ; her influence 
would have been beyond all others" {NA, II, chap. 7), Anne misses 
the support of a loving female influence. It is then fitting that the 
powerful whispers of well-meaning Mrs. Musgrove and Mrs. Croft 
furnish Anne with the cover — the opportunity and the encourage- 



Jane A usten 's Cover Story 179 

ment — to discuss with Captain Harville her sense of exclusion from 
patriarchal culture: "Men have had every advantage of us in telling 
their own story. . . . The pen has been in their hands" (II, chap. 11). 
Anne Elliot will "not allow books to prove anything" because they 
"were all written by men" (II, chap. 11); her contention that women 
love longest because their feelings are more tender directly contradicts 
the authorities on women's "fickleness" that Captain Harville cites. 
As we have already seen, her speech reminds us that the male charge 
of "inconstancy" is an attack on the irrepressible interiority of women 
who cannot be contained within the images provided by patriarchal 
culture. Though Anne remains inalterably inhibited by these images 
since she cannot express her sense of herself by "saying what should 
not be said" (II, chap. 11) and though she can only replace the 
Baronetage with the Navy Lists — a book in which women are conspicu- 
ously absent — still she is the best example of her own belief in female 
subjectivity. She has both deconstructed the dead selves created by 
all her friends to remain true to her own feelings, and she has con- 
tinually reexamined and reassessed herself and her past. 

Finally, Anne's fate seems to be a response to Austen's earlier 
stories in which girls are forced to renounce their romantic ambitions : 
Anne "had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned 
romance as she grew older — the natural sequel of an unnatural 
beginning" (I, chap. 4). It is she who teaches Captain Wentworth 
the limits of masculine assertiveness. Placed in Anne's usual situation 
of silently overhearing, he discovers her true, strong feelings. Signi- 
ficantly, his first reponse is to drop his pen. Then, quietly, under the 
cover of doing some business for Captain Harville, Captain Went- 
worth writes her his proposal, which he can only silently hand to her 
before leaving the room. At work in the common sitting-room of the 
White Hart Inn, alert for inauspicious interruptions, using his other 
letter as a kind of blotter to camouflage his designs, Captain Went- 
worth reminds us of Austen herself. While Anne's rebirth into "a 
second spring of youth and beauty" (II, chap. 1) takes place within 
the same corrupt city that fails to fulfill its baptismal promise of 
purification in Northanger Abbey, we are led to believe that her life 
with this man will escape the empty elegance of Bath society. 

That the sea breezes of Lyme and the watery cures of Bath have 
revived Anne from her ghostly passivity furnishes some evidence that 



ISO Inside the House of Fiction 

naval life may be an alternative to and an escape from the corruption 
of the land so closely associated with patrilineal descent. Sir Walter 
Elliot dismisses the navy because it raises "men to honours which 
their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of" (I, chap. 3). And 
certainly Captain Wentworth seems almost miraculously to evade 
the hypocrisies and inequities of a rigid class system by making money 
on the water. But it is also true that naval life seems to justify Sir 
Walter's second objection that "it cuts up a man's youth and vigour 
most horribly." While he is thinking in his vanity only about the 
rapidity with which sailors lose their looks, we are given an instance 
of the sea cutting up a man's youth, a singularly unprepossessing man 
at that: when worthless Dick Musgrove is created by Austen only to 
be destroyed at sea, we are further reminded of her trust in the bene- 
ficence of nature, for only her anger against the unjust adulation of 
sons (over daughters) can explain the otherwise gratuitous cruelty 
of her remarks about Mrs. Musgrove's "large fat sighings over the 
destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for" (I, chap. 8). 
Significantly, this happily lost son was recognized as a fool by Captain 
Wentworth, whose naval success closely associates him with a voca- 
tion that does not as entirely exclude women as most landlocked 
vocations do: his sister, Mrs. Croft, knows that the difference between 
"a fine gentleman" and a navy man is that the former treats women 
as if they were "all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures" (1, chap. 
8). She herself believes that "any reasonable woman may be perfectly 
happy" on board ship, as she was when she crossed the Atlantic four 
times and traveled to and from the East Indies, more comfortably 
(she admits) than when she settled at Kellynch Hall, although her 
husband did take down Sir Walter's mirrors. 

Naval men like Captain Wentworth and Admiral Croft are also 
closely associated, as is Captain Harville, with the ability to create 
"ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements ... to turn the actual 
space to the best possible account" (I, chap. 1 1), a skill not unrelated 
to a "profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domes- 
tic virtue than in its national importance" (II, chap. 12). While 
Austen's dowagers try to gain power by exploiting traditionally male 
prerogatives, the heroine of the last novel discovers an egalitarian 
society in which men value and participate in domestic life, while 
women contribute to public events, a complementary ideal that 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 181 

presages the emergence of an egalitarian sexual ideology. 38 No longer 
confined to a female community of childbearing and childrearing, 
activities portrayed as dreary and dangerous in both Austen's novels 
and her letters,*' Anne triumphs in a marriage that represents the 
union of traditionally male and female spheres. If such a consum- 
mation can only be envisioned in the future, on the water, amid 
imminent threats of war, Austen nonetheless celebrates friendship 
between the sexes as her lovers progress down Bath streets with 
"smiles reined in and spirits dancing in private rapture" (II, chap. 
11). 

When Captain Wentworth accepts Anne's account of their story, 
he agrees with her highly ambivalent assessment of the woman who 
advised her to break off their engagement. Lady Russell is one of 
Austen's last pushy widows, but, in this novel which revises Austen's 
earlier endorsement of the necessity of taming the shrew, the cau- 
tionary monster is one of effacement rather than assertion. If the 
powerful origin of Emma is the psychologically coercive model of the 
woman as lady, in Persuasion Austen describes a heroine who refuses 
to become a lady. Anne Elliot listened to the persuasions of the 
powerful, wealthy, proper Lady Russell when she refrained from 
marrying the man she loved. But finally she rejects Lady Russell, 
who is shown to value rank and class over the dictates of the heart, 
in part because her own heart is perverted, capable of revelling "in 
angry pleasure, in pleased contempt" (II, chap. 1) at events sure to 
hurt Anne. Anne replaces this cruel stepmother with a different kind 
of mother surrogate, another widow, Mrs. Smith. Poor, confined, 
crippled by rheumatic fever, Mrs. Smith serves as an emblem of the 
dispossession of women in a patriarchal society, and she is, as Paul 
Zietlow has shown, also the embodiment of what Anne's future could 
have been under less fortunate circumstances. 40 

While Lady Russell persuaded Anne not to marry a poor man, 
Mrs. Smith explains why she should not marry a rich one. Robbed 
of all physical and economic liberty, with "no child ... no relatives 
... no health ... no possibility of moving" (II, chap. 5), Mrs. Smith 
is paralyzed, and, although she exerts herself to maintain good humor 
in her tight place, she is also maddened. She expresses her rage at 
the false forms of civility, specifically at the corrupt and selfish double- 
dealings of Mr. Elliot, the heir apparent and the epitome of patri- 



182 Inside the House of Fiction 

archal society. With fierce delight in her revengeful revelations, Mrs. 
Smith proclaims herself an "injured, angry woman" (II, chap. 9) 
and she articulates Anne's — and Austen's — unacknowledged fury at 
her own unnecessary and unrecognized paralysis and suffering. But 
although this widow is a voice of angry female revolt against the 
injustices of patriarchy, she is as much a resident of Bath as Lady 
Russell. This fashionable place for cures reminds us that society is 
sick. And Mrs. Smith participates in the moral degeneration of the 
place when she selfishly lies to Anne, placing her own advancement 
over Anne's potential marital happiness by withholding the truth 
about Mr. Elliot until she is quite sure Anne does not mean to marry 
him. Like Lady Russell, then, this other voice within Anne's psyche 
can also potentially victimize her. 

It is Mrs. Smith's curious source of knowledge, her informant or 
her muse, who best reveals the corruption that has permeated and 
informs the social conventions of English society. A woman who 
nurses sick people back to health, wonderfully named nurse Rooke 
resembles in her absence from the novel many of Austen's most im- 
portant avatars. Pictured perched on the side of a sickbed, nurse 
Rooke seems as much a vulture as a savior of the afflicted. Her 
freedom of movement in society resembles the movement of a chess 
piece which moves parallel to the edge of the board, thereby defining 
the limits of the game. And she "rooks" her patients, discovering 
their hidden hoards. 

Providing ears and eyes for the confined Mrs. Smith, this seemingly 
ubiquitous, omniscient nurse is privy to all the secrets of the sickbed. 
She has taught Mrs. Smith how to knit, and she sells "little thread- 
cases, pin-cushions and cardracks" not unlike Austen's "little bit 
(two Inches wide) of Ivory." What she brings as part of her services 
are volumes furnished from the sick chamber, stories of weakness and 
selfishness and impatience. A historian of private life, nurse Rooke 
communicates in typically female fashion as a gossip engaged in the 
seemingly trivial, charitable office of selling feminine handcrafts to 
the fashionable world. This and her gossip are, of course, a disguise 
for her subversive interest in uncovering the sordid realities behind 
the decorous appearances of high life. In this regard she is a wonderful 
portrait of Austen herself. While seemingly unreliable, dependent 
(as she is) for information upon many interactions which are subject 



Jane Austen's Cover Story 183 

to errors of misconception and ignorance, this uniquely female his- 
torian turns out to be accurate and revolutionary as she reveals "the 
manoevers of selfishness and duplicity" (II, chap. 9) of one class to 
another. Finally, sensible nurse Rooke also resembles Austen in that, 
despite all her knowledge, she does not withdraw from society. In- 
stead, acknowledging herself a member of the community she nurses, 
she is a "favourer of matrimony" who has her own "flying visions" 
of social success (II, chap. 9). Although many of Austen's female 
characters seem inalterably locked inside Mr. Elton's riddle, nurse 
Rooke resembles the successful heroines of the author's works in 
making the best of this tight place. 

That Austen was fascinated with the sickness of her social world, 
especially its effect on people excluded from a life of active exertion, 
is probably last illustrated through the Parker sisters in Sanditon, 
where officious Diane supervises the application of six leeches a day 
for ten days and the extraction of a number of teeth in order to cure 
her disabled sister Susan's poor health. One sister representing 
"activity run mad" (chap. 9), the other languishing on the sofa, the 
two remind us of lethargic Lady Bertram, crippled Mrs. Smith, ill 
Jane Fairfax, fever-stricken Marianne Dashwood, the infected Craw- 
fords, hypochondriacal Mary Musgrove, ailing Louisa Musgrove, 
and pale, sickly Fanny Price. But, as nurse Rooke's healing arts 
imply, the diseased shrews and the dying fainters define the bound- 
aries of the state in which Austen's most successful characters usually 
manage to settle. A few of her heroines do evade the culturally induced 
idiocy and impotence that domestic confinement and female sociali- 
zation seem to breed. Neither fainting into silence nor self-destructing 
into verbosity, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Anne 
Elliot echo their creator in their duplicitous ability to speak with the 
tact that saves them from suicidal somnambulism on the one hand 
and contaminating vulgarity on the other, as they exploit the evasions 
and reservations of feminine gentility. 



Ill 

How Are We Fal'n?: 
Milton's Daughters 




Milton's Bogey : 

Patriarchal Poetry and Women 

Readers 



I say that words are men and when we spell 

In alphabets we deal with living things; 

With feet and thighs and breasts, fierce heads, strong wings; 

Material Powers, great Bridals, Heaven and Hell. 

There is a menace in the tales we tell. 

— Anna Hempstead Branch 

Torn from your body, furbished from your rib; 
I am the daughter of your skeleton, 
Born of your bitter and excessive pain . . . 

— Elinor Wylie 

Patriarchal Poetry their origin and their history their history 
patriarchal poetry their origin patriarchal poetry their history 
their origin patriarchal poetry their history their origin 
patriarchal poetry their history patriarchal poetry their origin 
patriarchal poetry their history their origin. 

— Gertrude Stein 

Adam had a time, whether long or short, when he could wander 
about on a fresh and peaceful earth. . . . But poor Eve found him 
there, with all his claims upon her, the moment she looked into the 
world. That is a grudge that woman has always had against the 
Creator [so that some] young witches got everything they wanted 
as in a catoptric image [and believed] that no woman should allow 
herself to be possessed by any male but the devil. . . . this they got 
from reading — in the orthodox witches' manner — the book of 
Genesis backwards. 

— Isak Dinesen 



To resurrect "the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister," Virginia 
Woolf declares in A Room of One's Own, literate women must "look 

187 



188 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

past Milton's bogey, for no human being should shut out the view." 1 
The perfunctory reference to Milton is curiously enigmatic, for the 
allusion has had no significant development, 2 and Woolf, in the midst 
of her peroration, does not stop to explain it. Yet the context in which 
she places this apparently mysterious bogey is highly suggestive. 
Shutting out the view, Milton's bogey cuts women off from the 
spaciousness of possibility, the predominantly male landscapes of 
fulfillment Woolf has been describing throughout A Room. Worse, 
locking women into "the common sitting room" that denies them 
individuality, it is a murderous phantom that, if it didn't actually 
kill "Judith Shakespeare," has helped to keep her dead for hundreds 
of years, over and over again separating her creative spirit from "the 
body which she has so often laid down." 

Nevertheless, the mystery of Woolf 's phrase persists. For who (or 
what) is Milton's bogey? Not only is the phrase enigmatic, it is 
ambiguous. It may refer to Milton himself, the real patriarchal 
specter or — to use Harold Bloom's critical terminology — "Covering 
Cherub" who blocks the view for women poets. 3 It may refer to Adam, 
who is Milton's (and God's) favored creature, and therefore also a 
Covering Cherub of sorts. Or it may refer to another fictitious specter, 
one more bogey created by Milton: his inferior and Satanically 
inspired Eve, who has also intimidated women and blocked their 
view of possibilities both real and literary. That Woolf does not 
definitively indicate which of these meanings she intended suggests 
that the ambiguity of her phrase may have been deliberate. Certainly 
other Woolfian allusions to Milton reinforce the idea that for her, 
as for most other women writers, both he and the creatures of his 
imagination constitute the misogynistic essence of what Gertrude 
Stein called "patriarchal poetry." 

As our discussion of the metaphor of literary paternity suggested, 
literary women, readers and writers alike, have long been "confused" 
and indmidated by the patriarchal etiology that defines a solitary 
Father God as the only creator of all things, fearing that such a 
cosmic Author might be the sole legitimate model for all earthly- 
authors. Milton's myth of origins, summarizing a long misogynistic 
tradition, clearly implied this notion to the many women writers 
who directly or indirectly recorded anxieties about his paradigmatic 
patriarchal poetry. A minimal list of such figures would include 



Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers 189 

Margaret Cavendish, Anne Finch, Mary Shelley, Charlotte and 
Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George 
Eliot, Christina Rossetti, H. D., and Sylvia Plath, as well as Stein, 
Nin, and Woolf herself. In addition, in an effort to come to terms with 
the institutionalized and often elaborately metaphorical misogyny 
Milton's epic expresses, many of these women devised their own 
revisionary myths and metaphors. 

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for instance, is at least in part a de- 
spairingly acquiescent "misreading" of Paradise Lost, with Eve-Sin 
apparently exorcised from the story but really translated into the 
monster that Milton hints she is. Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, 
by contrast, is a radically corrective "misreading" of Milton, a kind 
of Blakeian Bible of Hell, with the fall from heaven to hell transformed 
into a fall from a realm that conventional theology would associate 
with "hell" (the Heights) to a place that parodies "heaven" (the 
Grange). Similarly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "A Drama of 
Exile," Charlotte Bronte's Shirley, and Christina Rossetti's "Goblin 
Market" all include or imply revisionary critiques of Paradise Lost, 
while George Eliot's Middlemarch uses Dorothea's worship of that 
"affable archangel" Casaubon specifically to comment upon the 
disastrous relationship between Milton and his daughters. And in 
her undaughterly rebellion against that "Papa above" whom she 
also called "a God of Flint" and "Burglar! Banker — Father," Emily 
Dickinson, as Albert Gelpi has noted, was "passionately Byronic," 
and therefore, as we shall see, subtly anti-Miltonic* For all these 
women, in other words, the question of Milton's misogyny was not 
in any sense an academic one. 5 On the contrary, since it was only 
through patriarchal poetry that they learned "their origin and their 
history" — learned, that is, to define themselves as misogynistic 
theology defined them — most of these writers read Milton with 
painful absorption. 

Considering all this, Woolf 's 1918 diary entry on Paradise Lost, 
an apparently casual summary of reactions to a belated study of 
that poem, may well represent all female anxieties about "Milton's 
bogey," and is thus worth quoting in its entirety. 

Though I am not the only person in Sussex who reads Milton, 
I mean to write down my impressions of Paradise Lost while I 



190 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

am about it. Impressions fairly well describes the sort of thing 
left in my mind. I have left many riddles unread. I have slipped 
on too easily to taste the full flavour. However I see, and agree 
to some extent in believing, that this full flavour is the reward 
of highest scholarship. I am struck by the extreme difference 
between this poem and any other. It lies, I think, in the sublime 
aloofness and impersonality of the emotion. I have never read 
Cowper on the sofa, but I can imagine that the sofa is a degraded 
substitute for Paradise Lost. The substance of Milton is all made 
of wonderful, beautiful, and masterly descriptions of angels' 
bodies, battles, flights, dwelling places. He deals in horror and 
immensity and squalor and sublimity but never in the passions 
of the human heart. Has any great poem ever let in so little light 
upon one's own joys and sorrows? I get no help in judging life; 
I scarcely feel that Milton lived or knew men and women ; except 
for the peevish personalities about marriage and the woman's 
duties. He was the first of the masculinists, but his disparagement 
rises from his own ill luck and seems even a spiteful last word in 
his domestic quarrels. But how smooth, strong and elaborate it 
all is ! What poetry ! I can conceive that even Shakespeare after 
this would seem a little troubled, personal, hot and imperfect. I 
can conceive that this is the essence, of which almost all other 
poetry is the dilution. The inexpressible fineness of the style, in 
which shade after shade is perceptible, would alone keep one 
gazing into it, long after the surface business in progress has 
been despatched. Deep down one catches still further combina- 
tions, rejections, felicities and masteries. Moreover, though there 
is nothing like Lady Macbeth's terror or Hamlet's cry, no pity 
or sympathy or intuition, the figures are majestic; in them is 
summed up much of what men thought of our place in the 
universe, of our duty to God, our religion.* 

Interestingly, even the diffident first sentence of this paragraph 
expresses an uncharacteristic humility, even nervousness, in the 
presence of MiltonVsublime aloofness and impersonality." By 1918 
Woolf was herself an experienced, widely published literary critic, 
as well as the author of one accomplished novel, with another in 
progress. In the preceding pages she has confidently set down judg- 



Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers 191 

merits of Christina Rossetti ("She has the natural singing power"), 
Byron ("He has at least the male virtues"), Sophocles' Electra ("It's 
not so fearfully difficult after all"), and a number of other serious 
literary subjects. Yet Milton, and Milton alone, leaves her feeling 
puzzled, excluded, inferior, and even a little guilty. Like Greek or 
metaphysics, those other bastions of intellectual masculinity, Milton 
is for Woolf a sort of inordinately complex algebraic equation, an 
insoluble problem that she feels obliged — but unable — to solve ("I 
have left many riddles unread"). At the same time, his magnum opus 
seems to have little or nothing to do with her own, distinctively female 
perception of things ("Has any great poem ever let in so little light 
upon one's own joys and sorrows?"). Her admiration, moreover, 
is cast in peculiarly vague, even abstract language ("how smooth, 
strong and elaborate it all is"). And her feeling that Milton's verse 
(not the dramas of her beloved, androgynous Shakespeare) must be 
"the essence of which almost all other poetry is the dilution" perhaps 
explains her dutiful conclusion, with its strained insistence that in 
the depths of Milton's verse "is summed up much of what men 
thought of our place in the universe, of our duty to God, our.religion." 
Our? Surely Woolf is speaking here "as a woman," to borrow one 
of her own favorite phrases, and surely her conscious or unconscious 
statement is clear: Milton's bogey, whatever else it may be, is 
ultimately his cosmology, his vision of "what men thought" and his 
powerful rendering of the culture myth that Woolf, like most other 
literary women, sensed at the heart of Western literary patriarchy. 
The story that Milton, "the first of the masculinists," most notably 
tells to women is of course the story of woman's secondness, her 
otherness, and how that otherness leads inexorably to her demonic 
anger, her sin, her fall, and her exclusion from that garden of the 
gods which is also, for her, the garden of poetry. In an extraordinarily 
important and yet also extraordinarily distinctive way, therefore, 
Milton is for women what Harold Bloom (who might here be para-, 
phrasing Woolf) calls "the great Inhibitor, the Sphinx who strangles 
even strong imaginations in their cradles." In a line even more 
appropriate to women, Bloom adds that "the motto to English poetry 
since Milton was stated by Keats: 'life to him would be death to 
me.'"' And interestingly, Woolf herself echoes just this line in 
speaking of her father years after his death. Had Sir Leslie Stephen 



192 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

lived into his nineties, she remarks, "His life would have entirely 
ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books: — 
inconceivable." 8 For whatever Milton is to the male imagination, 
to the female imagination Milton and the inhibiting Father — the 
Patriarch of patriarchs — are one. 

For Woolf, indeed, even Milton's manuscripts are dramatically 
associated with male hegemony and female subordination. One of 
the key confrontations in A Room occurs when she decides to consult 
the manuscript of Lycidas in the "Oxbridge" library and is forbidden 
entrance by an agitated male librarian 

like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black 
gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly 
gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back 
that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a 
Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction. 9 

Locked away from female contamination at the heart of "Oxbridge's" 
paradigmatically patriarchal library — in the very heaven of libraries, 
so to speak — there is a Word of power, and the Word is Milton's. 

Although A Room merely hints at the cryptic but crucial power of 
the Miltonic text and its misogynistic context, Woolf clearly defined 
Milton as a frightening "Inhibitor" in the fictional (rather than 
critical) uses she made or did not make of Milton throughout her 
literary career. Both Orlando and Between the Acts, for instance, her 
two most ambitious and feminist re-visions of history, appear quite 
deliberately to exclude Milton from their radically transformed 
chronicles of literary events. Hermaphroditic Orlando meets Shake- 
speare the enigmatic androgyne, and effeminate Alexander Pope — 
but John Milton simply does not exist for him/her, just as he doesn't 
exist for Miss La Trobe, the revisionary historian of Between the Acts. 
As Bloom notes, one of the ways in which a poet evades anxiety is 
to deny even the existence of the precursor poet who is the source of 
anxiety. 

On the other hand, when Woolf does allude to Milton in a novel, 
as she does in The Voyage Out, her reference grants him his pernicious 
power in its entirely. Indeed, the motto of the heroine, Rachel 
Vinrace, might well be Keats's "Life to him would be death to me," 
for twenty-four-year-old Rachel, dying of some unnamed disease 



Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers 193 

mysteriously related to her sexual initiation by Terence Hewet, 
seems to drown in waves of Miltonic verse. "Terence was reading 
Milton aloud, because he said the words of Milton had substance 
and shape, so that it was not necessary to understand what he was 
saying . . . [But] the words, in spite of what Terence had said, seemed 
to be laden with meaning, and perhaps it was for this reason that it 
was painful to listen to them." 10 An invocation to "Sabrina Fair," 
the goddess "under the glassy, cool, translucent wave," the words 
Terence reads from Comus seek the salvation of a maiden who has 
been turned to stone. But their effect on Rachel is very different. 
Heralding illness, they draw her toward a "deep pool of sticky water" 
murky with images derived from Woolf 's own episodes of madness, 
and ultimately they plunge her into the darkness "at the bottom of 
the sea." 11 Would death to Milton, one wonders, have been life 
for Rachel? 

Charlotte Bronte would certainly have thought so. Because Woolf 
was such a sophisticated literary critic, she may have been at once the 
most conscious and the most anxious heiress of the Miltonic culture 
myth. But among earlier women writers it was Bronte who seemed 
most aware of Milton's threatening qualities, particularly of the 
extent to which his influence upon women's fate might be seen as — to 
borrow a pun from Bloom — an unhealthy influenza." In Shirley she 
specifically attacked the patriarchal Miltonic cosmology, within 
whose baleful context she saw both her female protagonists sickening, 
orphaned and starved by a male-dominated society. "Milton was 
great ; but was he good ?" asks Shirley Keeldar, the novel's eponymous 
heroine. 

[He] tried to see the first woman, but ... he saw her not. . . . 
It was his cook that he saw; or it was Mrs. Gill, as I have seen 
her, making custards, in the heat of summer, in the cool dairy, 
with rose-trees and nasturtiums about the latticed window, 
preparing a cold collation for the rectors, — preserves, and 
"dulcet creams" — puzzled "What choice to choose for delicacy 
best." 13 

Shirley's allusion is to the passage in book 5 of Paradise Lost in 
which housewifely Eve, "on hospitable thoughts intent," serves Adam 
and his angelic guest an Edenic cold collation of fruits and nuts, 



194 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

berries and "dulcet creams." With its descriptions of mouth-watering 
seraphic banquets and its almost Victorian depiction of primordial 
domestic bliss, this scene is especially vulnerable to the sort of parodic 
wit Bronte" has Shirley turn against it. But the alternative that Bronte 
and Shirley propose to Milton's Eve-as-litde-woman is more serious 
and implies an even severer criticism of Paradise Lost's visionary 
misogyny. The first woman, Shirley hypothesizes, was not an Eve, 
"half doll, half angel," and always potential fiend. Rather, she was 
a Titan, and a distinctively Promethean one at that : 

"... from her sprang Saturn, Hyperion, Oceanus; she bore 
Prometheus. . . . The first woman's breast that heaved with life 
on this world yielded the daring which could contend with 
Omnipotence: the strength which could bear a thousand years 
of bondage, —the vitality which could feed that vulture death 
through uncounted ages, — the unexhausted life and uncorrupted 
excellence, sisters to immortality, which . . . could conceive and 
bring forth a Messiah ... I saw — I now see — a woman-Titan. 
. . . she reclines her bosom on the ridge of Stilbro' Moor; her 
mighty hands are joined beneath it. So kneeling, face to face 
she speaks with God. That Eve is Jehovah's daughter, as Adam 
was his son." 

Like Woolf 's concept of "Milton's bogey," this apparently bold 
vision of a titanic Eve is interestingly (and perhaps necessarily) 
ambiguous. It is possible, for instance, to read the passage as a 
comparatively conventional evocation of maternal Nature giving 
birth to male greatness. Because she "bore Prometheus," the first 
woman's breast nursed daring, strength, vitality. At the same time, 
however, the syntax here suggests that "the daring which could 
content with Omnipotence" and "the strength which could bear a 
thousand years of bondage" belonged, like the qualities they parallel 
— "the unexhausted life and uncorrupted excellence . . . which . . . 
could . . . bring forth a Messiah" — to the first woman herself. Not 
only did Shirley's Eve bring forth a Prometheus, then, she was 
herself a Prometheus, contending with Omnipotence and defying 
bondage. 14 Thus, where Milton's Eve is apparently submissive, except 
for one moment of disastrous rebellion in which she listens to the 



Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers J 95 

wrong voice, Shirley's is strong, assertive, vital. Where Milton's Eve 
is domestic, Shirley's is daring. Where Milton's Eve is from the first 
curiously hollow, as if somehow created corrupt, "in outward show/ 
Elaborate, of inward less exact" (PL 8. 538-39) Shirley's is filled 
with "unexhausted life and uncorrupted excellence." Where Milton's 
Eve is a sort of divine afterthought, an almost superfluous and mostly 
material being created from Adam's "supernumerary" rib, Shirley's 
is spiritual, primary, "heaven-born." Finally, and perhaps most 
significantly, where Milton's Eve is usually excluded from God's sight 
and, at crucial moments in the history of Eden, drugged and silenced 
by divinely ordained sleep, Shirley's speaks "face to face" with God. 
We may even speculate that, supplanted by a servile and destructive 
specter, Shirley's Eve is the first avatar of that dead poet whom Woolf, 
in her re-vision of this myth, called Judith Shakespeare and who was 
herself condemned to death by Milton's bogey. 



Besides having interesting descendants, Shirley's titanic woman 
has interesting ancestors. For instance, if she is herself a sort of 
Prometheus as well as Prometheus's mother, she is in a sense closer to 
Milton's Satan than to his Eve. Certainly "the daring which could 
contend with Omnipotence" and "the strength which could bear 
a thousand years of bondage" are qualities that recall not only the 
firm resolve of Shelley's Prometheus (or Byron's or Goethe's or 
Aeschylus's) but "the unconquerable will" Milton's fiend opposes 
to "The tyranny of Heav'n." Also, the gigantic size of Milton's fallen 
angel (" . . . in bulk as huge/ As whom the Fables name of monstrous 
size, / Titanian, or Earth-born" [PL 1. 196-98]) is repeated in the 
enormity of Shirley's Eve. She "reclines her bosom on the ridge of 
Sullbro' Moor" just as Satan lies "stretched out huge in length" in 
book 1 of Paradise Lost, and just as Blake's fallen Albion (another 
neo-Miltonic figure) appears with his right foot "on Dover cliffs, 
his heel / On Canterbury ruins; his right hand [covering] lofty Wales / 
His left Scotland," etc. 1 * But of course Milton's Satan is himself the 
ancestor of all the Promethean heroes conceived by the Romantic 
poets who influenced Bronte. And as if to acknowledge that fact, 
she has Shirley remark that under her Titan woman's breast "I see 



196 How Are We FaTn ? Milton's Daughters 

her zone, purple like that horizon : through its blush shines the star 
of evening" — Lucifer, the "son of the morning" and the evening 
star, who is Satan in his unfallen state. 

Milton's Satan transformed into a Promethean Eve may at first 
sound like a rather unlikely literary development. But even the briefest 
reflection on Paradise Lost should remind us that, despite Eve's 
apparent passivity and domesticity, Milton himself seems deliberately 
to have sketched so many parallels between her and Satan that it is 
hard at times for the unwary reader to distinguish the sinfulness of 
one from that of the other. As Stanley Fish has pointed out, for 
instance, Eve's temptation speech to Adam in book 9 is "a tissue of 
Satanic echoes," with its central argument "Look on me. / Do not 
believe," an exact duplicate of the anti-religious empiricism em- 
bedded in Satan's earlier temptation speech to her. 1 * Moreover, 
where Adam falls out of uxorious "fondness," out of a self-sacrificing 
love for Eve which, at least to the modern reader, seems quite noble, 
Milton's Eve falls for exactly the same reason that Satan does : because 
she wants to be "as Gods," and because, like him, she is secretly 
dissatisfied with her place, secretly preoccupied with questions of 
"equality." After his fall, Satan makes a pseudo-libertarian speech 
to his fellow angels in which he asks, "Who can in reason then or 
right assume / Monarchy over such as live by right / His equals, if 
in power and splendor less, /In freedom equal?" (PL 5. 794-97). 
After her fall, Eve considers the possibility of keeping the fruit to 
herself "so to add what wants / In Female Sex, the more to draw 
[Adam's] Love, / And render me more equal" (PL 9. 821-23). 

Again, just as Milton's Satan — despite his pretensions to equality 
with the divine — dwindles from an angel into a dreadful (though 
subtle) serpent, so Eve is gradually reduced from an angelic being 
to a monstrous and serpentine creature, listening sadly as Adam 
thunders, "Out of my sight, thou Serpent, that name best / Befits 
thee with him leagu'd, thyself as false /And hateful; nothing wants, 
but that thy shape, / Like his, and colour Serpentine may show / Thy 
inward fraud" (PL 10. 867-71) The enmity God sets between the 
woman and the serpent is thus the discord necessary to divide those 
who are not opposites or enemies but too much alike, too much 
attracted to each other. In addition, just as Satan feeds Eve with the 
forbidden fruit, so Eve — who is consistently associated with fruit, 



Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers 197 

not only as Edenic chef but also as herself the womb or bearer of 
fruit — feeds the fruit to Adam. And finally, just as Satan's was a fall 
into generation, its first consequence being the appearance of the 
material world of Sin and Death, so Eve's (and not Adam's) fall 
completes the human entry into generation, since its consequence is 
the pain of birth, death's necessary opposite and mirror image. And 
just as Satan is humbled and enslaved by his desire for the bitter fruit, 
so Eve is humbled by becoming a slave not only to Adam the in- 
dividual man but to Adam the archetypal man, a slave not only to 
her husband but, as de Beauvoir notes, to the species. 17 By contrast, 
Adam's fall is fortunate because, among other reasons, from the 
woman's point of view his punishment seems almost like a reward, 
as he himself suggests when he remarks that "On mee the Curse 
aslope / Glanc'd on the ground, with labour I must earn / My bread ; 
what harm? Idleness had been worse ..." (PL 10. 1053-55). 

We must remember, however, that as Milton delineates it Eve's 
relationship to Satan is even richer, deeper, and more complex than 
these few points suggest. Her bond with the fiend is strengthened not 
only by the striking similarities that link her to him, but also by the 
ways in which she resembles Sin, his female avatar and, indeed — 
with the exception of Urania, who is a kind of angel in the poet's 
head — the only other female who graces (or, rather, disgraces) 
Paradise Lost. 18 Bronte's Shirley, whose titanic Eve is reminiscent of 
the Promethean aspects of Milton's devil, does not appear to have 
noticed this relationship, even in her bitter attack upon Milton's 
little woman. But we can be sure that Bronte herself, like many other 
female readers, did — if only unconsciously — perceive the likeness. 
For not only is Sin female, like Eve, she is serpentine as Satan is and 
as Adam tells Eve she is. Her body, "Woman to the waist, and fair, / But 
[ending] foul in many a scaly fold / Voluminous and vast, a Serpent 
arm'd / With mortal sting" exaggerates and parodies female anatomy 
just as the monstrous bodies of Spenser's Error and Duessa do (PL 2. 
650-53). Similarly, with her fairness ironically set against foulness, 
Sin parodies Adam's fearful sense of the tension between Eve's 
"outward show / Elaborate" and her "inward less exact." Moreover, 
just as Eve is a secondary and contingent creation, made from Adam's 
rib, so Sin, Satan's "Daughter," burst from the fallen angel's brain 
like a grotesque subversion of the Graeco-Roman story of wise 



198 How Are We FaVn ? Milton's Daughters 

Minerva's birth from the head of Jove. In a patriarchal Christian 
context the pagan goddess Wisdom may, Milton suggests, become the 
loathesome demoness Sin, for the intelligence of heaven is made up 
exclusively of "Spirits Masculine," and the woman, like her dark 
double, Sin, is a "fair defect / Of Nature" (PL 10. 890-93). 

If Eve's punishment, moreover, is her condemnation to the anguish 
of maternity, Sin is the only model of maternity other than the "wide 
womb of Chaos" with which Paradise Lost provides her, and as a 
model Milton's monster conveys a hideous warning of what it means 
to be a "slave to the species." Birthing innumerable Hell Hounds in 
a dreadful cycle, Sin is endlessly devoured by her children, who 
continually emerge from and return to her womb, where they bark 
and howl unseen. Their bestial sounds remind us that to bear young 
is to be not spiritual but animal, a thing of flesh, an incomprehensible 
and uncomprehending body, while their ceaseless suckling presages 
the exhaustion that leads to death, companion of birth. And Death 
is indeed their sibling as well as the father who has raped (and thus 
fused with) his mother, Sin, in order to bring this pain into being, 
just as "he" will meld with Eve when in eating the apple she ends 
up "eating Death" (PL 9. 792). 

Of course, Sin's pride and her vulnerability to Satan's seductive 
wiles make her Eve's double too. It is at Satan's behest, after all, that 
Sin disobeys God's commandments and opens the gates of hell to 
let the first cause of evil loose in the world, and this act of hers is 
clearly analogous to Eve's disobedient eating of the apple, with its 
similar consequences. Like both Eve and Satan, moreover, Sin wants 
to be "as Gods," to reign in a "new world of light and bliss" (PL 2. 
867), and surely it is not insignificant that her moving but blas- 
phemous pledge of allegiance to Satan ("Thou art my Father, thou 
my Author, thou /My being gav'st me; whom should I obey /But 
thee, whom follow?" [PL 2. 864-66]) foreshadows Eve's most poi- 
gnant speech to Adam ("But now lead on . . . with thee to go, / Is 
to stay here ; without thee here to stay, / Is to go hence unwilling ; thou 

to mee/ Art all things under Heav'n " [PL 12. 6 14-1 8J), as if 

in some part of himself Milton meant not to instruct the reader by- 
contrasting two modes of obedience but to undercut even Eve's 
"goodness" in advance. Perhaps it is for this reason that, in the grim 
shade of Sin's Medusa-like snakiness, Eve's beauty, too, begins (to 



Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers 199 

an experienced reader of Paradise Lost) to seem suspect: her golden 
tresses waving in wanton, wandering ringlets suggest at least a sinister 
potential, and it hardly helps that so keen a critic as Hazlitt thought 
her nakedness made her luscious as a piece of fruit. 19 

Despite Milton's well-known misogyny, however, and the highly 
developed philosophical tradition in which it can be placed, all these 
connections, parallels, and doublings among Satan, Eve, and Sin are 
shadowy messages, embedded in the text of Paradise Lost, rather than 
carefully illuminated overt statements. Still, for sensitive female 
readers brought up in the bosom of a "masculinist," patristic, neo- 
Manichean church, the latent as well as the manifest content of such 
a powerful work as Paradise Lost was (and is) bruisingly real. To such 
women the unholy trinity of Satan, Sin and Eve, diabolically mimick- 
ing the holy trinity of God, Christ, and Adam, 80 must have seemed 
even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to illustrate that 
historical dispossession and degradation of the female principle which 
was to be imaginatively analyzed in the twentieth century by Robert 
Graves, among others. "The new God," Graves wrote in The White 
Goddess, speaking of the rise of the Judaic-Pythagorean tradition 
whose culture myth Milton recounts, 

claimed to be dominant as Alpha and Omega, the Beginning 
and the End, pure Holiness, pure Good, pure Logic, able to 
exist without the aid of woman ; but it was natural to identify him 
with one of the original rivals of the Theme [of the White Goddess] 
and to ally the woman and the other rival permanently against 
him. The outcome was philosophical dualism with all the tragi- 
comic woes attendant on spiritual dichotomy. If the True God, 
the God of the Logos, was pure thought, pure good, whence 
came evil and error? Two separate creations had to be assumed : 
the true spiritual Creation and the false material Creation. In 
terms of the heavenly bodies, Sun and Saturn were now jointly 
opposed to Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus. The five 
heavenly bodies in opposition made a strong partnership, with 
a woman at the beginning and a woman at the end. Jupiter and 
the Moon Goddess paired together as the rulers of the material 
World, the lovers Mars and Venus paired together as the lustful 
Flesh, and between the pairs stood Mercury who was the Devil, 



200 How Are We FaVn ? Milton's Daughters 

the Cosmocrator or author of the false creation. It was these five 
who composed the Pythagorean hyle, or grove, of the five material 
senses; and spiritually minded men, coming to regard them as 
sources of error, tried to rise superior to them by pure meditation. 
This policy was carried to extreme lengths by the Godfearing 
Essenes, who formed their monkish communities within com- 
pounds topped by acacia hedges, from which all women were 
excluded ; lived ascetically, cultivated a morbid disgust for their 
own natural functions and turned their eyes away from World, 
Flesh and Devil. 81 
Milton, who offers at least lip service to the institution of matri- 
mony, is never so intensely misogynistic as the fanatically celibate 
Essenes. But a similar though more disguised misogyny obviously 
contributes to Adam's espousal of Right Reason as a means of 
transcending the worldly falsehoods propounded by Eve and Satan 
(and by his vision of the "Bevy of fair Women" whose wiles betrayed 
the "Sons of God" [PL 1 1. 582, 622]). And that the Right Reason of 
Paradise Lost did have such implications was powerfully understood 
by William Blake, whose fallen Urizenic Milton must reunite with 
his female Emanation in order to cast off his fetters and achieve 
imaginative wholeness. Perhaps even more important for our purposes 
here, in the visionary epic Milton Blake reveals a sure grasp of the 
psychohistorical effects he thought Milton's misguided "chastity" 
had, not only upon Milton, but upon women themselves. While 
Milton-as-noble-bard, for instance, ponders "the intricate mazes of 
Providence," Blake has his "six-fold Emanation" howl and wail, 
"Scatter'd thro' the deep /In torment." 22 Comprised of his three 
wives and three daughters, this archetypal abandoned woman knows 
very well that Milton's anti-feminism has deadly implications for 
her own character as well as for her fate. "Is this our Feminine 
Portion," Blake has her demand despairingly. "Are we Contraries 
O Milton, Thou & I/O Immortal! how were we led to War the 
Wars of Death [?]" And, as if to describe the moral deformity such 
misogyny fosters in women, she explains that "Altho' our Human 
Power can sustain the severe contentions . . . our Sexual cannot : 
but flies into the [hell of] the Ulro. / Hence arose all our terrors in 
Eternity!" 23 

Still, although he was troubled by Milton's misogyny and was 



Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers 201 

radically opposed to the Cartesian dualism Milton's vaguely Mani- 
chean cosmology anticipated, Blake did portray the author of Paradise 
Lost as the hero — the redeemer even — of the poem that bears his 
name. Beyond or behind Milton's bogey, the later poet saw, there 
was a more charismatic and congenial figure, a figure that Shirley 
and her author, like most other female readers, must also have 
perceived, judging by the ambiguous responses to Milton recorded 
by so many women. For though the epic voice of Paradise Lost often 
sounds censorious and "masculinist" as it recounts and comments 
upon Western patriarchy's central culture myth, the epic's creator 
often seems to display such dramatic affinities with rebels against 
the censorship of heaven that Romantic readers well might conclude 
with Blake that Milton wrote "in fetters" and "was of the devil's 
party without knowing it." 24 And so Blake, blazing a path for Shirley 
and for Shelley, for Byron and for Mary Shelley, and for all the 
Brontes, famously defined Satan as the real, burningly visionary 
god — the Los — of Paradise Lost, and "God" as the rigid and death- 
dealing Urizenic demon. His extraordinarily significant misreading 
clarifies not only the lineage of, say, Shelley's Prometheus, but also 
the ancestry of Shirley's titanic Eve. For if Eve is in so many negative 
ways like Satan the serpentine tempter, why should she not also be 
akin to Satan the Romanuc outlaw, the character whom (Harold 
Bloom reminds us) T. S. Eliot considered "Milton's curly-haired 
Byronic hero" ? 2 * 



That Satan is throughout much of Paradise Lost a handsome devil 
and therefore a paradigm for the Byronic hero at his most attractive 
is, of course, a point frequendy made by cridcs of all persuasions, 
including those less hostile than Eliot was to both Byron and Milton. 
Indeed, Satan's Prometheanism, the indomitable will and courage 
he bequeathed to characters like Shirley's Eve, almost seems to have 
been created to illustrate some of the crucial features of Romanticism 
in general. Refusing, like Shelley's Prometheus, to submit to the 
"tyranny of Heaven," and stalking "apart in joyless revery" like 
Byron's Childe Harold, 28 Milton's Satan is as alienated from celesdal 
society as any of the early nineteenth-century poets maudit who made 
him their emblem. Accursed and self-cursing, paradoxical and mys- 



202 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

tical ("Which way I fly is hell; myself am Hell . . . Evil be thou my 
Good" [PL 4. 75, 1 10]), he experiences the guilty double conscious- 
ness, the sense of a stupendous self capable of nameless and perhaps 
criminal enormities, that Byron redefined in Manfred and Cain as 
marks of superiority. Moreover, to the extent that the tyranny of 
heaven is associated with Right Reason, Satan is Romantically anti- 
rational in his exploration of the secret depths of himself and of the 
cosmos. He is anti-rational — and Romantic — too, in his indecorous 
yielding to excesses of passion, his Byronic "gestures fierce" and "mad 
demeanor" (PL 4. 128-29). At the same time, his aristocratic 
egalitarianism, manifested in his war against the heavenly system of 
primogeniture that has unjustly elevated God's. "Son" above even 
the highest angels, suggests a Byronic (and Shelleyan and Godwinian) 
concern with liberty and justice for all. Thunder-scarred and world- 
weary, this black-browed devil would not, one feels, have been out 
of place at Missolonghi. 

Significantly, Eve is the only character in Paradise Lost for whom a 
rebellion against the hierarchical status quo is as necessary as it is 
for Satan. Though he is in one sense oppressed, or at least mani- 
pulated, by God, Adam is after all to his own realm what God is to 
His: absolute master and guardian of the patriarchal rights of primo- 
geniture. Eve's docile speech in book 4 emphasizes this: "My Author 
and Disposer, what thou bidd'st / Unargu'd I obey; so God ordains, / 
God is thy Law, thou mine : to know no more / Is woman's happiest 
knowledge and her praise" (PL 4. 635-38). But the dream she has 
shortly after speaking these words to Adam (reported in book 5) 
seems to reveal her true feelings about the matter in its fantasy of a 
Satanic flight of escape from the garden and its oppressions : "Up 
to the Clouds ... I flew, and underneath beheld / The Earth out- 
stretcht immense, a prospect wide/ And various. . ." 27 (PL 5.86-89), 
a redefined prospect of happy knowledge not unlike the one Woolf 
imagines women viewing from their opened windows. And interest- 
ingly, brief as is the passage describing Eve's flight, it foreshadowed 
fantasies that would recur frequently and compellingly in the writings 
of both women and Romantic poets. Byron's Cain, for instance, 
disenchanted by what his author called the "politics of paradise," 28 
flies through space with his seductive Lucifer like a masculine version 
of Milton's Eve, and though Shirley's Eve is earthbound — almost 



Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers 203 

earthlike — innumerable other "Eves" of female origin have flown, 
fallen, surfaced, or feared to fly, as if to acknowledge in a backhanded 
sort of way the power of the dream Milton let Satan grant to Eve. 
But whether female dreams of flying escapes are derived from Miltonic 
or Romantic ideas, or from some collective female unconscious, is a 
difficult question to answer. For the connections between Satan, 
Romanticism, and concealed or incipient feminism are intricate and 
far-reaching indeed. 

Certainly, if both Satan and Eve are in some sense alienated, 
rebellious, and therefore Byronic figures, the same is true for women 
writers as a class — for Shirley's creator as well as for Shirley, for 
Virginia Woolf as well as for "Judith Shakespeare." Dispossessed by 
her older brothers — the "Sons of God" — educated to submission, 
enjoined to silence, the woman writer, in fantasy if not in reality, 
must often have "stalked apart in joyless revery," like Byron's heroes, 
like Satan, like Prometheus. Feeling keenly the discrepancy between 
the angel she was supposed to be and the angry demon she knew she 
often was, she must have experienced the same paradoxical double 
consciousness of guilt and greatness that afflicts both Satan and, say, 
Manfred. Composing herself to saintly stillness, brooding narcissisti- 
cally like Eve over her own image and like Satan over her own power, 
she may even have feared occasionally that like Satan — or Byron's 
Lara, or his Manfred — she would betray her secret fury by "gestures 
fierce" or a "mad demeanor." Asleep in the bower of domesticity, 
she would be unable to silence the Romantic/Satanic whisper — 
"Why sleepst thou Eve?" — with its invitation to join the visionary 
world of those who fly by night. 

Again, though Milton goes to great lengths to associate Adam, 
God, Christ, and the angels with visionary prophetic powers, that 
visionary night-world of poetry and imagination, insofar as it is a 
demonic world, is more often subtly associated in Paradise Lost with 
Eve, Satan, and femaleness than with any of the "good" characters 
except the epic speaker himself. Blake, of course, saw this quite clearly. 
It is the main reason for the Satan-God role reversal he postulates. 
But his friend Mary Wollstonecraft and her Romantic female descen- 
dants must have seen it too, just as Byron and Shelley did. For though 
Adam is magically shown, as in a crystal ball, what the future holds, 
Satan and Eve are both the real dreamers of Paradise Lost, possessed 



204 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

in the Romantic sense by seductive reflections and uncontrollable 
imaginings of alternative lives to the point where, like Manfred or 
Christabel or the Keats of The Fall of Hyperion, they are so scorched 
by visionary longings they become fevers of themselves, to echo 
Moneta's words to Keats. But even this suffering sense of, the hellish 
discrepancy between Satan's (or Eve's) aspiration and position is a 
model of aesthetic nobility to the Romantic poet and the Romantically 
inspired feminist. Contemplating the "lovely pair" of Adam and Eve 
in their cosily unfallen state, Mary Wollstonecraft confesses that she 
feels "an emotion similar to what we feel when children are playing 
or animals sporting," and on such occasions "I have, with conscious 
dignity, or Satanic pride, turned to hell for sublimer subjects." 29 Her 
deliberate, ironic confusion of "conscious dignity" and -"Satanic 
pride," together with her reverence for the "sublime," prefigure 
Shelley's Titan as clearly as Shirley's titanic woman. The imagining 
of more "sublime" alternative lives, moreover, as Blake and Woll- 
stonecraft also saw, reinforces the revolutionary fervor that Satan the 
visionary poet, like Satan the aristocratic Byronic rebel, defined for 
women and Romantics alike. 

That the Romantic aesthetic has often been linked with visionary 
politics is, of course, almost a truism. From the apocalyptic revolutions 
of Blake and Shelley to those of Yeats and D. H. Lawrence, moreover, 
re-visions of the Miltonic culture myth have been associated with such 
repudiations of the conservative, hierarchical "politics of paradise." 
"In terrible majesty," Blake's Satanic Milton thunders, "Obey thou 
the words of the Inspired Man. / All that can be annihilated must be 
annihilated / That the children of Jerusalem may be saved from 
slavery." M Like him, Byron's Lucifer offers autonomy and knowledge 
— the prerequisites of freedom — to Cain, while Shelley's Prometheus, 
overthrowing the tyranny of heaven, ushers in "Life, Joy, Empire, 
and Victory" for all of humanity. 31 Even D. H. Lawrence's Satanic 
snake, emerging one hundred years later from the hellishly burning 
bowels of the earth, seems to be "one of the lords / Of life," an exiled 
king "now due to be crowned again," signalling a reborn society. 32 
For in the revolutionary cosmologies of all these Romantic poets, 
both Satan and his other self, Lucifer ("son of the morning"), were 
emblematic of that liberated dawn in which it would be bliss to be 
alive. 



Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Renders 205 

It is not surprising, then, that women, identifying at their most 
rebellious with Satan, at their least with rebellious Eve, and almost 
all the time with the Romantic poets, should have been similarly 
obsessed with the apocalyptic social transformations a revision of 
Milton might bring about. Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication 
of the Rights of Woman often reads like an outraged commentary on 
Paradise Lost, combined a Blakeian enthusiasm for the French Revolu- 
tion — at least in its early days — with her "pre-Romantic" reverence 
for the Satanic sublime and her feminist anger at Milton's misogyny. 
But complicated as it was, that complex of interrelated feelings was 
not hers alone. For not only have feminism and Romantic radicalism 
been consciously associated in the minds of many women writers, 
Byronically (and Satanically) rebellious visionary politics have often 
been used by women as metaphorical disguises for sexual politics. 
Thus in Shirley Bronte not only creates an anti-Miltonic Eve, she also 
uses the revolutionary anger of the frame-breaking workers with 
whom the novel is crucially concerned as an image for the fury of its 
dispossessed heroines. Similarly, as Ellen Moers has noted, English- 
women's factory novels (like GaskeU's Maty Barton) and American 
women's anti-slavery novels (like Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin) sub- 
merged or disguised "private, brooding, female resentment" in 
ostensibly disinterested examinations of larger public issues. 33 More 
recently, even Virginia Woolf 's angrily feminist Three Guineas purports 
to have begun not primarily as a consideration of the woman question 
but as an almost Shelleyan dream of transforming the world — 
abolishing war, tyranny, ignorance, etc. — through the formation of 
a female "Society of Outsiders." 

But of course such a society would be curiously Satanic, since in 
the politics of paradise the Prince of Darkness was literally the first 
Outsider. Even if Woolf herself did not see far enough past Milton's 
bogey to recognize this, a number of other women, both feminists 
and anti-feminists, did. In late nineteenth-century America, for 
instance, a well-known journal of Romantically radical politics and 
feminism was called Lucifer the Light-bearer, and in Victorian England 
Mrs. Rigby wrote of Charlotte Bronte's Byronic and feminist Jane 
Eyre that "the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown 
authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and 
fostered Chartism and rebellion at home" — in other words, a Byronic, 



206 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

Promethean, Satanic, and Jacobin tone of mind — "is the same which 
has also written Jane Eyre." 31 

Paradoxically, however, Bronte herself may have been less con- 
scious of the extraordinary complex of visionary and revisionary 
impulses that went into Jane Eyre than Mrs. Rigby was, at least in 
part because, like many other women, she found her own anger and 
its intellectual consequences almost too painful to confront. Com- 
menting on the so-called condition of women question, she told 
Mrs. Gaskell that there are "evils — deep-rooted in the foundation 
of the social system — which no efforts of ours can touch ; of which 
we cannot complain: of which it is advisable not too often to think." 
Like Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, she evidently had moments in which 
she saw "no friend in God — in Satan's host no foes." 88 Still, despite 
her refusal to "complain," Bronte's unwillingness to think of social 
inequities was more likely a function of her anxiety about her own 
rebelliously Satanic impulses than a sign of blind resignation to what 
Yeats called "the injustice of the skies." 38 

The relationship between women writers and Milton's curly-haired 
Byronic hero is, however, even more complicated than we have so 
far suggested. And in the intricate tangle of this relationship resides 
still another reason for the refusal of writers like Bronte consciously to 
confront their obsessive interest in the impulses incarnated in the 
villain of Paradise Lost. For not only is Milton's Satan in certain 
crucial ways very much like women, he is also (as we saw in connection 
with Austen's glamorously Satanic anti-heroes) enormously attractive 
to women. Indeed, both Eliot's phrase and Byron's biography imply 
that he is in most ways the incarnation of worldly male sexuality, 
fierce, powerful, experienced, simultaneously brutal and seductive, 
devilish enough to overwhelm the body and yet enough a fallen 
angel to charm the soul. As such, however, in his relations with 
women he is a sort of Nietzschean Ubermensch, giving orders and 
expecting homage to his "natural" — that is, masculine — superiority, 
as if he were God's shadow self, the id of heaven, Satanically redupli- 
cating the politics of paradise wherever he goes. And yet, wherever 
he goes, women follow him, even when they refuse to follow the God 
whose domination he parodies. As Sylvia Plath so famously noted, 
"Every woman adores a Fascist, /The boot in the face, the brute/ 
Brute heart of a brute like you." Speaking of "Daddy," Plath was of 



Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers 207 

course speaking also of Satan, "a man in black with a Mein Kampf 
look." 37 And the masochistic phenomenon she described helps explain 
the unspeakable, even unthinkable sense of sin that also caused women 
like Woolf and Bronte to avert their eyes from their own Satanic 
impulses. For if Eve is Sin's as well as Satan's double, then Satan is 
to Eve what he is to Sin — both a lover and a daddy. 



That the Romantic fascination with incest derived in part from 
Milton's portrayal of the Sin-Satan relationship may be true but is 
in a sense beside the point here. That both women and Romantic 
poets must have found at least an analog for their relationship to 
each other in Satan's incestuous affair with Sin is, however, very 
much to the point. Admiring, even adoring, Satan's Byronic re- 
belliousness, his scorn of conventional virtues, his raging energy, 
the woman writer may have secretly fantasized that she was Satan — 
or Cain, or Manfred, or Prometheus. But at the same time her feelings 
of female powerlessness manifested themselves in her conviction that 
the closest she could really get to being Satan was to be his creature, 
his tool, the witchlike daughter/mistress who sits at his right hand. 
Leslie Marchand recounts a revealing anecdote about Mary Shelley's 
stepsister, Claire Clairmont, that brilliantly illuminates this move- 
ment from self-assertive identification to masochistic self-denial. 
Begging Byron to criticize her half-finished novel, rebellious Claire 
(who was later to follow the poet to Geneva and bear his daughter 
Allegra) is said to have explained that he must read the manuscript 
because "the creator ought not to destroy his creature." 38 

Despite Bronte's vision of a Promethean Eve, even her Shirley 
betrays a similar sense of the difficulty of direct identification with 
the assertive Satanic principle, and the need for women to accept 
their own instrumentality, for her first ecstatic description of an active, 
indomitable Eve is followed by a more chastened story. In this second 
parable, the "first woman" passively wanders alone in an alienating 
landscape, wondering whether she is "thus to burn out and perish, 
her living light doing no good, never seen, never needed" even though 
"the flame of her intelligence bumfs] so vivid" and "something 
within her stirfs] disquieted." Instead of coming from that Prome- 
thean fire within her, however, as the first Eve's salvation implicitly 



208 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

did, this Eva's redemption comes through a Byronic/Satanic god of 
the Night called "Genius," who claims her, a "lost atom of life," as 
his bride. "I take from thy vision, darkness ... I, with my presence, 
fill vacancy," he declares, explaining that "Unhumbled, I can take 
what is mine. Did I not give from the altar the very flame which lit 
Eva's being?" 3 * Superficially, this allegorical narrative may be seen 
as a woman's attempt to imagine a male muse with whom she can 
have a sexual interaction that will parallel the male poet's congress 
with his female muse. But the incestuous Byronic love story in which 
Bronte embodies her allegorical message is more significant here than 
the message itself. 

It suggests to begin with that, like Claire Clairemont, Bronte may 
have seen herself as at best a creation of male "Genius" — whether 
artwork or daughter is left deliberately vague — and therefore a being 
ultimately lacking in autonomy. Finding her ideas astonishingly 
close to those of an admired male (Byron, Satan, "Genius"), and 
accustomed to assuming that male thought is the source of all female 
thinking just as Adam's rib is the source of Eve's body, she supposes 
that he has, as it were, invented her. In addition, her autonomy is 
further denied even by the incestuous coupling which appears to 
link her to her creator and to make them equals. For, as Helene 
Moglen notes, the devouring ego of the Satanic-Byronic hero found 
the fantasy (or reality) of incest the best strategy for metaphorically 
annihilating the otherness — the autonomy — of the female. "In his 
union with [his half-sister] Augusta Leigh," Moglen points out, 
"Byron was in fact striving to achieve union with himself," just as 
Manfred expresses his solipsistic self-absorption by indulging his 
forbidden passion for his sister, Astarte. Similarly, the enormity of 
Satan's ego is manifested in the sexual cycle of his solipsistic production 
and reproduction of himself first as Sin and later as Death. Like 
Byron, he seems to be "attempting to become purely self-dependent 
by possessing his past in his present, affirming a more complete 
identity by enveloping and containing his other, complementary self. 
But, as Moglen goes on to remark, "to incorporate 'the other' is also 
after all to negate it. No space remains for the female. She can either 
allow herself to be devoured or she can retreat into isolation." 40 

It is not insignificant, then, that the fruit of Satan's solipsistic union 
with Sin is Death, just as death is the fruit of Manfred's love for 



Milton' t Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers 209 

Astarte and ultimately — as we shall see — of all the incestuous neo- 
Satanic couplings envisioned by women writers from Mary Shelley 
to Sylvia Plath. To the extent that the desire to violate the incest 
taboo is a desire to be self-sufficient — self-begetting — it is a divinely 
interdicted wish to be "as Gods," like the desire for the forbidden 
fruit of the tree of knowledge, whose taste also meant death. For the 
woman writer, moreover, even the reflection that the Byronic hero is 
as much a creature of her mind — an incarnation of her "private, 
brooding, female resentments" — as she is an invention of his, offers 
little solace. For if in loving her he loves himself, in loving him she 
loves herself, and is therefore similarly condemned to the death of 
the soul that punishes solipsism. 

But of course such a death of the soul is implied in any case by 
Satan's conception of his unholy creatures: Sin, Death, and Eve. 
As a figure of the heavenly interloper who plays the part of false 
"cosmocrator" in the dualistic patriarchal cosmology Milton in- 
herited from Christian tradition, Satan is in fact a sort of artist of 
death, the paradigmatic master of all those perverse aesthetic tech- 
niques that pleasure the body rather than the soul, and serve the 
world rather than God. From the golden palace he erects at Pan- 
demonium to his angelic impersonations in the garden and the 
devilish machines he engineers as part of his war against God, he 
practices false, fleshly, death-devoted arts (though a few of them are 
very much the kinds of arts a Romantic sensualist like Keats some- 
times admired). As if following Milton even here, Byron makes the 
Satanic Manfred similarly the master of false, diabolical arts. And 
defining herself as the "creature" of one or the other of these irreligious 
artists, the woman writer would be confirmed not only in her sense 
that she was part of the "effeminate slackness" of the "fake creation" 
but also in her fear that she was herself a false creator, one of the 
seductive "bevy of fair women" for whom the arts of language, like 
those of dance and music, are techniques "Bred only ... to the 
taste / Of lustful appetance," sinister parodies of the language of the 
angels and the music of the spheres (PL 1 1. 618-19). In the shadow 
of such a fear, even her housewifely arts would begin, like Eve's 
cookery — her choosing of delicacies "so contriv'd as not to mix / 
Tastes" (PL 5. 334-35) — to seem suspect, while the poetry she 
conceived might well appear to be a monster birth, like Satan's 



210 How Are We FaPn ? Milton 's Daughters 

horrible child Death. Fallen like Anne Finch into domesticity, into 
the "dull mannage of a servile house" 41 as well as into the slavery of 
generation, she would not even have the satisfaction Manfred has of 
dying nobly. Rather, dwindling by degrees into an infertile drone, 
she might well conclude that this image of Satan and Eve as the false 
artists of creation was Anally the most demeaning and discouraging 
avatar of Milton's bogey. 



What would have made her perception of this last bogey even 
more galling, of course, would have been the magisterial calm with 
which Milton, as the epic speaker of Paradise Lost, continually calk 
attention to his own art, for the express purpose, so it seems, of defining 
himself throughout the poem as a type of the true artist, the virtuous 
poet who, rather than merely delighting (like Eve and Satan), delights 
while instructing. A prophet or priestly bard and therefore a guardian 
of the sacred mysteries of patriarchy, he serenely proposes to justify 
the ways of God to men, calls upon subservient female muses for the 
assistance that is his due (and in real, life upon slavish daughters for 
the same sort of assistance), and at the same rime wars upon women 
with a barrage of angry words, just as God wars upon Satan. Indeed, 
as a figure of the true artist, God's emissary and defender on earth, 
Milton himself, as he appears in Paradise Lost, might well have seemed 
to female readers to be as much akin to God as they themselves were 
to Satan, Eve, or Sin. 

Like God, for instance, Milton-as-epic-speaker creates heaven and 
earth (or their verbal equivalents) out of a bewildering chaos of 
history, legend, and philosophy. Like God, he has mental powers 
that penetrate to the furthest corners of the cosmos he has created, to 
the depths of hell and the heights of heaven, soaring with "no middle 
flight" toward ontological subjects "unattempted yet in Prose or 
Rhyme" (PL 1. 16). Like God, too, he knows the consequence of 
every action and event, his comments upon them indicating an almost 
divine consciousness of the simultaneity of past, present, and future. 
Like God, he punishes Satan, rebukes Adam and Eve, moves angels 
from one battle station to another, and grants all mankind glimpses of 
apocalyptic futurity, when a "greater Man" shall arrive to restore 
Paradisal bliss. And like God — like the Redeemer, like the Creator, 



Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers 211 

like the Holy Ghost — he is male. Indeed, as a male poet justifying the 
ways of a male deity to male readers he rigorously excludes all 
females from the heaven of his poem, except insofar as he can beget 
new ideas upon their chaotic fecundity, like the Holy Spirit "brooding 
on the vast Abyss" and making it pregnant (PL 1. 21-22). 

Even the blindness to which this epic speaker occasionally refers 
makes him appear godlike rather than handicapped. Cutting him 
off from "the cheerful ways" of ordinary mortals and reducing Satan's 
and Eve's domain of material nature to "a universal blanc," it elevates 
him above trivial fleshly concerns and causes "Celestial light" to 
"shine inward" upon him so that, like Tiresias, Homer, and God, he 
may see the mysteries of the spiritual world and "tell / Of things 
invisible to mortal sight" (PL 3. 55). And finally, even the syntax 
in which he speaks of these "things invisible" seems somehow godlike. 
Certainly the imposition of a Latinate sentence structure on English 
suggests both supreme confidence and supreme power. Paradise Lost 
is the "most remarkable Production of the world," Keats dryly 
decided in one of his more anti-Miltonic moments, because of the 
way its author forced a "northern dialect" to accommodate itself 
"to greek and latin inversions and intonations." 42 But not only are 
Greek and Latin the quintessential languages of masculine scholarship 
(as Virginia Woolf, for instance, never tired of noting) , they are also 
the languages of the Church, of patristic and patriarchal ritual and 
theology. Imposed upon English, moreover, their periodic sentences, 
perhaps more than any other stylistic device in Paradise Lost, flaunt 
the poet's divine foreknowledge. When Milton begins a sentence 
"Him the Almighty" the reader knows perfectly well that only the 
poet and God know how the sentence — like the verse, the book, 
and the epic of humanity itself — will come out in the end. 

That the Romantics perceived, admired, and occasionally identi- 
fied with Milton's bardlike godliness while at the same time identi- 
fying with Satan's Promethean energy and fortitude is one of the 
more understandable paradoxes of literary history. Though they 
might sometimes have been irreligious and radically visionary with 
Satan, poets like Wordsworth and Shelley were after all funda- 
mentally "masculinist" with Milton, even if they revered Mary 
Wollstonecraft (as Shelley did) or praised Anne Finch (as Wordsworth 
did). In this respect, their metaphors for the poet and "his" art are 



212 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

as revealing as Milton's. Both Wordsworth and (as we have seen) 
Shelley conceive of the poet as a divine ruler, an "unacknowledged 
legislator" in Shelley's famous phrase and "an upholder and pre- 
server" in Wordsworth's more conservative words. As such a ruler, 
a sort of inspired patriarch, he is, like Milton, the guardian and 
hierophant of sacred mysteries, inalterably opposed to the "idleness 
and unmanly despair" of the false, effeminate creation. More, he is 
a virile trumpet that calls mankind to battle, a fiercely phallic sword 
that consumes its scabbard, and — most Miltonic of all — a godlike 
"influence which is moved not, but moves," modeled upon Aristotle's 
Unmoved Mover. 43 

No wonder then that, as Joseph Wittreich puts it, the author of 
Paradise Lost was "the quintessence of everything the Romantics 
most admired . . . the Knower moved by truth alone, the Doer . . . 
causing divine deeds to issue forth from divine ideas, the Sayer who 
translates the divine idea into poetry. . . . Thus to know Milton was 
to know the answers to the indistinguishable questions — What is a 
poet? What is poetry?" 44 Virginia Woolf, living in a world where 
the dead female poet who was "Judith Shakespeare" had laid aside 
her body so many times, made the same point in different words: 
"This is the essence of which almost all other poetry is the dilution." 
Such an assertion might seem jubilant if made by a man. But the 
protean shadow of Milton's bogey seems to darken the page as 
Woolf writes. 




Horror's Twin : 

Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 



The nature of a Female Space is this: it shrinks the Organs 
Of Life till they become Finite & Itself seems Infinite 
And Satan vibrated in the immensity of the Space! Limited 
To those without but Infinite to those within . . . 

— William Blake 

The woman writes as if the Devil was in her; and that is the only 

condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading. 

— Nathaniel Hawthorne, on Fanny Fern 

I probed Retrieveless things 
My Duplicate — to borrow — 
A Haggard Comfort springs 

From the belief that Somewhere — 
Within the Clutch of Thought- 
There dwells one other Creature 
Of Heavenly Love — forgot — 

I plucked at our Partition 
As One should pry the Walls — 
Between Himself — and Horror's Twin — 
Within Opposing Cells — 

— Emily Dickinson 



What was the effect upon women writers of that complex of culture 
myths summarized by Woolf as Milton's bogey? Surrounded by 
"patriarchal poetry," what strategies for artistic survival were they 
able to develop? The comments of writers like Bronte, Woolf, and 
Wollstonecraft show that intelligent women were keenly conscious 
of the problems Milton posed. But they were dizzied by them, too, 

213 



214 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

for the secret messages of Paradise Lost enclosed the poem's female 
readers like a roomful of distorting mirrors. Keats's wondering 
remark — "Whose head is not dizzy at the possibly [sic] speculations 
of Satan in the serpent prison" 1 — seems to apply with even greater 
force to women, imprisoned in the coil of serpentine images that 
misogynistic myths and traditions constructed for them. On the 
surface, however, many women writers responded equably, even 
docilely to Milton and all he represented. Certainly the following 
dialogue from Middlemarch seems to suggest a dutiful and submissive 
attitude toward patriarchal poetry: 

"Could I not be preparing myself now to be more useful?" 
said Dorothea to [Casaubon], one morning, early in the time 
of courtship; "could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud 
to you, as Milton's daughters did to their father, without under- 
standing what they read?" 

"I fear that would be wearisome to you," said Mr. Casaubon 
smiling; "and, indeed, if I remember rightly, the young women 
you have mentioned regarded that exercise in unknown tongues 
as a ground for rebellion against the poet." 

"Yes; but in the first place they were very naughty girls, else 
they would have been proud to minister to such a father; and 
in the second place they might have studied privately and 
taught themselves to understand what they read, and then it 
would have been interesting. I hope you don't expect me to be 
naughty and stupid?" 2 

Usefulness, reading aloud, "ministering" to a wise father — all 
these terms and notions reinforce Milton's concept of woman as at 
best a serviceable second, a penitent Eve bearing children or pruning 
branches under Adam's thoughtful guidance. Offering herself with 
"ardent submissive affection" as helpmate to paternal Casaubon, 
Dorothea Brooke appears as nobly free of Satanic aspirations as 
George Eliot herself must have wished to be. A closer look at this 
passage and at its context, however, transforms this interpretation, 
revealing that with characteristic irony Eliot has found a way of 
having submissive Dorothea intend, among other things, the very 
opposite of what she says to Casaubon. Indeed, even the passage's 
concern with Milton as father (rather than with, say, Milton as 



Horror's Twin : Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 215 

politician or Milton as bard) tends paradoxically to sap the strength 
of the patriarchal associations that accrue around the name "Milton." 

To take the last point first, paintings of Milton dictating to his 
daughters were quite popular at the end of the eighteenth century 
and throughout the nineteenth. One of Keats's first acts on moving 
into new lodgings, for instance, was to unpack his books and pin up 
"Haydon — Mary Queen [of] Scotts, and Milton with his daughters 
in a row." 3 Representing virtuous young ladies angelically minis- 
tering to their powerful father, the picture would seem to hold a 
mirror up to the nature of one of Western culture's fondest fantasies. 
At the same time, however, from a female point of view — as the 
Middlemarch passage suggests — the image of the Miltonic father 
being ministered to hints that his powers are not quite absolute, that in 
fact he has been reduced to a state of dependence upon his female 
descendents. Blinded, needing tea and sympathy as well as secretarial 
help, the godlike bard loses at least some of his divinity and is human- 
ized, even (to coin a term) Samsonized. Thus, just as Charlotte 
Bronte implies that Jane Eyre leading blinded Rochester through 
the grounds of his own rural seat has found a rather Delilah-ish way 
of making herself not only useful to him but equal to him, so Eliot, 
working in the same iconographic tradition, implies that Dorothea 
secretly desires to make herself the equal of a Romantically weakened 
Casaubon : "it was not entirely out of devotion to her future husband 
that she wished to know Latin and Greek. . . . she had not reached 
that point of renunciation at which she would have been satisfied 
with having a wise husband: she wished, poor child, to be wise 
herself." 4 

But this unspoken wish to be as wise as a wise (though weak-eyed) 
husband is not only made possible by the dramatic situation of 
Milton and his daughters, it is expressed by Dorothea herself even 
when she seems merely to be stating her "ardent submissive affec- 
tion," and it is clarified by Eliot in other passages. Milton's "naughty" 
daughters, Dorothea says, should have been "proud to minister to 
such a father." Not to "their" father, not to any father, but to a 
special father whose wisdom they might imbibe from close daily 
contact, as she herself hopes to imbibe Casaubon 's learning. More 
important, she speculates that "they might have studied privately 
and taught themselves to understand what they read, and then it 



216 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

would have been interesting." They might, in other words, have 
refused to accept their secondary position, might have made them- 
selves their father's equals in knowledge, might — like Dorothea — 
have wished to be wise themselves. 

To the extent, however, that Dorothea's wish to be wise is not 
only a wish to be equal to her husband but also a wish to penetrate 
those forbidden "provinces of masculine knowledge . . . from which 
all truth could be seen more truly," it is a longing for intellectual 
self-reliance that parodies the Satanic. More, such a wish obviously 
subverts the self-effacing rhetoric in which it is couched ("Could 
I not be preparing myself now to be more useful?"), making it 
possible to impute to Dorothea — of all people — a sort of Satanic 
deviousness. And in fact, though any deviousness on her part is 
largely unconscious, her Satanic aspirations for power and wisdom 
as well as her Eve-like curiosity (itself a function of the Satanic) are 
clearly if guardedly defined in several places. Her desire "to arrive* 
at the core of things," for instance, though ostensibly the result of a 
docile wish to "judge soundly on the duties of a Christian," is in- 
extricably bound up with her ambitious plan to renovate her society 
by designing new housing for the poor. But "how could she be 
confident that one-room cottages were not for the glory of God," 
asks Eliot dryly, "when men who knew the classics appeared to 
conciliate indifference to the cottagers with zeal for the glory? 
Perhaps even Hebrew might be necessary," she notes, "at least the 
alphabet and a few roots — in order to arrive at the core of things" 
— and in order, by implication, to defeat the arguments of learned 
men on their own terms. 8 

In an earlier passage, in which Dorothea considers together the 
problems of education and architecture, Eliot makes the nature 
and intensity of her ambition even clearer. Indeed, in its expression 
of a will to be "as Gods" this passage seems almost like a direct prose 
translation of Eve's musings in Book 9 of Paradise Lost. 

"I should learn everything then [married to Casaubon]," she 
said to herself. . . . "It would be my duty to study that I might 
help him the better in his great works. There would be nothing 
trivial about out lives. Everyday things with us would mean the 
greatest things. ... I should learn to see the truth by the same 



Horror's Twin: Mary ShelUy's Monstrous Eve 217 

light as great men have seen it by. ... I should see how it was 
possible to lead a grand life here — now — in England" 6 

Though this Eve may not yet have eaten the apple, her desire to be 
both "good" and "wise," together with her longing for "a grand 
life here — now," suggest that she may soon succumb to a passion 
for such "intellectual food." That the food is also associated in her 
mind with freedom makes the point most strongly of all. When 
Dorothea fantasizes about the benefits of a marriage with Casaubon, 
Eliot remarks that "the union which attracted her was one that 
would deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance, 
and give her the freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who 
would take her along the grandest path."' For clearly this aspiring 
scholar imagines Casaubon a connubial guide to whom secret studies 
would soon make her equal, "for inferior who is free?" 

Interestingly, as a guide along the grandest path Casaubon seems 
at first more archangel than Adam, and even more idealized Milton 
than archangel. Certainly Eliot's epigraph to chapter 3 of Middlemarch 
("Say, goddess, what ensued, when Raphael, /The affable...") 
portrays the guide of Dorothea's dreams as affable archangel, 
heavenly narrator, "winged messenger," and Dorothea herself as 
an admiring Eve waiting to be instructed, while other passages 
show him metamorphosing into a sort of God: "he thinks a whole 
world of which my thought is but a poor two penny mirror."* And 
as both instructing angel and Godlike master of the masculine 
intellectual spheres, this dream-Casaubon would come close, as 
Dorothea's daughterly speech implies, to being a sort of reincarnated 
Milton. 

Behind the dream-Casaubon, however, lurks the real Casaubon, 
a point Eliot's irony stresses from the scholar's first appearance in 
Middlemarch, just as — the Miltonic parallels continually invite us 
to make this connection — the "real" Milton dwelt behind the careful- 
ly constructed dream image of the celestial bard. Indeed, Eliot's 
real Casaubon, as opposed to Dorothea's idealized Casaubon, is in 
certain respects closer to the real author of Paradise Lost than his 
dream image is to the Miltonic epic speaker. Like Milton, after all, 
Casaubon is a master of the classics and theology, those "provinces 
of masculine knowledge . . . from which all truth could be seen more 



218 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

truly." Like Milton's, too, his intellectual ambition is vast, onto- 
logical, almost overweening. In a sense, in fact, Casaubon's ambition 
is identical with Milton's, for just as Milton's aim was to justify the 
ways of God to man by learnedly retelling the central myth of 
Western culture, so Casaubon's goal is to "reconcile complete knowl- 
edge with devoted piety" by producing a "key to all mythologies." 9 
It is not at all unreasonable of Dorothea, therefore, to hope that as 
a dutiful daughter-wife-pupil she might be to Casaubon as Milton's 
daughters were to Milton, and that her virtuous example would 
criticize, by implication, the vices of her seventeenth-century pre- 
cursors. 

If the passionate reality of Dorothea comments upon the negative 
history of Milton's daughters, however, the dull reality of Casaubon 
comments even more forcefully upon history's images of Milton. For 
Casaubon as the forger of a key to all myths is of course a ludicrous 
caricature of Milton as sublime justifier of sublimity. Bonily self- 
righteous, pedantic, humorless, he dwindles in the course of Middle- 
march from heavenly scholar to tiresome Dryasdust to willful corpse 
oppressing Dorothea even from beyond the grave, and in his carefully 
articulated dissolution he is more like Milton's Satan, minus the 
Byronic glamour, than he is like Milton. But his repudiation of the 
guilty flesh, his barely disguised contempt for Dorothea's femininity, 
his tyranny, and his dogmatism make him the parodic shadow of 
the Miltonic misogynist and (at the same time) an early version of 
Virginia Woolf's red-faced, ferocious "Professor von X. engaged 
in writing his monumental work entitled The Mental, Moral, and 
Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex." 10 Uneasily wed to such a man, 
ambitious Dorothea inevitably metamorphoses into the archetypal 
wretched woman Blake characterized as Milton's wailing six-fold 
Emanation, his three wives and three daughters gathered into a 
single grieving shape. That she herself had defined the paradigm of 
Milton's daughters more hopefully is no doubt an irony Eliot fully 
intended. 



If the story of Milton's daughters was so useful to both Eliot and 
her protagonist, ambiguous iconography and all, it is even more 
useful now for critics seeking to understand the relationship between 



Horror's Twin : Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 219 

women and the cluster of misogynistic themes Milton's work brought 
together so brilliantly. Since the appearance of Paradise Lost — even, 
in a sense, before — all women writers have been to some extent 
Milton's daughters, continually wondering what their relationship 
to his patriarchal poetry ought to be and continually brooding upon 
alternative modes of daughterhood very much like those Dorothea 
describes. Margaret of Newcastle, for instance, seems to be trying 
to explain Milton's cosmos to herself in the following passage: 

. . . although nature has not made women so strong of body and 
so clear of understanding as the ablest of men, yet she has made 
them fairer, softer, slenderer. . . . [and] has laid in tender affec- 
tions, as love, piety, charity, clemency, patience, humility, and 
the like, which makes them nearest to resemble angels, which 
are the most perfect of all her works, where men by their 
ambitions, extortion, fury, and cruelty resemble the devil. But 
some women are like devils too when they are possessed with 
those evils, and the best of men . . . are like to gods. 11 

Similarly, Anne Finch's "How are we fal'n, fal'n by mistaken rules, / 
And Education's more than Nature's fools?" defines the Miltonic 
problem of the fall as a specifically female dilemma. 1 * And the 
Elizabethan "Jane Anger," like Milton's "naughty" daughters, in- 
veighs against the patriarchal oppression of a proto-Miltonic cos- 
mology in which "the gods, knowing that the minds of mankind 
would be aspiring, and having thoroughly viewed the wonderful 
virtues wherewith women are enriched, least they should provoke 
us to pride, and so confound us with Lucifer, they bestowed the 
supremacy over us to man." 13 Even before Milton had thought about 
women, it seems, women had thought of Milton. 

Following the rise of Romanticism, however, with its simultaneous 
canonization of Milton and Satan, women writers have been undeni- 
ably Milton's daughters. More important, they have even more 
obviously claimed for themselves precisely the options Eliot has 
Dorothea explain to Casaubon: on the one hand, the option of 
apparently docile submission to male myths, of being "proud to 
minister to such a father," and on the other hand the option of secret 
study aimed toward the achievement of equality. In a large, meta- 
phorical sense, these two courses of action probably define categories 



220 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton's Daughters 

in which almost all writing by women can be subsumed. More 
narrowly — but still metaphorically — these two alternative patterns 
describe the main critical responses nineteenth- and twentieth- 
century women writers have made specifically to their readings, or 
misreadings, of Paradise Lost. 

We shall argue here that the first alternative is the one Mary Shelley 
chooses in Frankenstein: to take the male culture myth of Paradise Lost 
at its full value — on its own terms, including all the analogies and 
parallels it implies — and rewrite it so as to clarify its meaning. The way 
of Milton's more ardently submissive daughters, it is the choice of 
the woman writer who, like Dorothea, strives to minister to such a 
father by understanding exactly what he is telling her about herself 
and what, therefore, he wants of her. But again, like Dorothea's 
ministrations, this apparently docile way of coping with Miltonic 
misogyny may conceal fantasies of equality that occasionally erupt 
in monstrous images of rage, as we shall see in considering Frankenstein. 

Such guarded fury comes closer (though not completely) to the 
surface in the writing of women who choose the second alternative 
of Milton's daughters, the alternative of rewriting Paradise Lost so as 
to make it a more accurate mirror of female experience. This way of coping 
with Miltonic patriarchy is the modus operandi chosen by, for 
instance, Emily Bronte (in Wuthering Heights and elsewhere), and it 
is the way of the imaginary daughter who studies Greek and Latin in 
secret — the woman, that is, who teaches herself the language of 
myth, the tongue of power, so that she can reinvent herself and her 
own experience while seeming innocently to read to her illustrious 
father. We shall see that, resolutely closing their Goethe, these women 
often passionately reopen their Byron, using Romantic modes and 
manners to enact subversively feminist reinterpretations of Paradise 
Lost. Thus, though the woman writer who chooses this means of 
coping with her difficult heritage may express her anger more openly, 
she too produces a palimpsestic or encoded artwork, concealing female 
secrets within male-devised genres and conventions. Not only Wuther- 
ing Heights but more recently such female — even feminist — myths 
as Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," Virginia Woolf's Orlando, 
and Sylvia Plath's Ariel are works by women who have chosen this 
alternative. But of course the connection of such re-visions of Paradise 
Lost to the patriarchal poetry that fathered them becomes increasingly 



Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 221 

figurative in the twentieth century, an era whose women have had 
an unusually developed female tradition from which they can draw 
strength in their secret study of Milton's language. It is in earlier, 
lonelier works, in novels like Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, that 
we can see the female imagination expressing its anxieties about 
Paradise Lost most overtly. And Frankenstein in particular is a fiction- 
alized rendition of the meaning of Paradise Lost to women. 

Many critics have noticed that Frankenstein (1818) is one of the key 
Romantic "readings" of Paradise Lost. 1 * Significantly, however, as a 
woman's reading it is most especially the story of hell: hell as a dark 
parody of heaven, hell's creations as monstrous imitations of heaven's 
creations, and hellish femaleness as a grotesque parody of heavenly 
maleness. But of course the divagations of the parody merely return 
to and reinforce the fearful reality of the original. For by parodying 
Paradise Lost in what may have begun as a secret, barely conscious 
attempt to subvert Milton, Shelley ended up telling, too, the central 
story of Paradise Lost, the tale of "what misery th' inabstinence of 
Eve / Shall bring on men." 

Mary Shelley herself claims to have been continually asked "how 
I . . . came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea" 
as that of Frankenstein, but it is really not surprising that she should 
have formulated her anxieties about femaleness in such highly 
literary terms. For of course the nineteen-year-old girl who wrote 
Frankenstein was no ordinary nineteen-year-old but one of England's 
most notable literary heiresses. Indeed, as "the daughter of two 
persons of distinguished literary celebrity," and the wife of a third, 
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley was the daughter and later 
the wife of some of Milton's keenest critics, so that Harold Bloom's 
useful conceit about the family romance of English literature is 
simply an accurate description of the reality of her life. 15 

In acknowledgment of this web of literary/familial relationships, 
critics have traditionally studied Frankenstein as an interesting example 
of Romantic myth-making, a work ancillary to such established 
Promethean masterpieces as Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and Byron's 
Manfred. ("Like almost everything else about [Mary's] life," one 
such critic remarks, Frankenstein "is an instance of genius observed 



222 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton V Daughters 

and admired but not shared." 16 ) Recently, however, a number of 
writers have noticed the connection between Mary Shelley's "waking 
dream" of monster-manufacture and her own experience of awaken- 
ing sexuality, in particular the "horror story of Maternity" which 
accompanied her precipitous entrance into what Ellen Moers calls 
"teen-age motherhood." l7 Clearly they are articulating an increas- 
ingly uneasy sense that, despite its male protagonist and its under- 
pinning of "masculine" philosophy, Frankenstein is somehow a 
"woman's book," if only because its author was caught up in such a 
maelstrom of sexuality at the time she wrote the novel. 

In making their case for the work as female fantasy, though, critics 
like Moers have tended to evade the problems posed by what we 
must define as Frankenstein's literariness. Yet, despite the weaknesses 
in those traditional readings of the novel that overlook its intensely 
sexual materials, it is still undeniably true that Mary Shelley's "ghost 
story," growing from a Keatsian (or Coleridgean) waking dream, is 
a Romantic novel about — among other things — Romanticism, as, 
well as a book about books and perhaps, too, about the writers of 
books. Any theorist of the novel's femaleness and of its significance 
as, in Moers's phrase, a "birth myth" must therefore confront this 
self-conscious literariness. For as was only natural in "the daughter 
of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity," Mary Shelley 
explained her sexuality to herself in the context of her reading and 
its powerfully felt implications. 

For this orphaned literary heiress, highly charged connections 
between femaleness and literariness must have been established early, 
and established specifically in relation to the controversial figure of 
her dead mother. As we shall see, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin read 
her mother's writings over and over again as she was growing up. 
Perhaps more important, she undoubtedly read most of the reviews 
of her mother's Posthumous Works, reviews in which Mary Woll- 
stonecraft was attacked as a "philosophical wanton" and a monster, 
while her Vindication of the Rights of Woman ( 1 792) was called "A scrip- 
ture, archly fram'd for propagating w[hore]s." 18 But in any case, to 
the "philosophical wanton's" daughter, all reading about (or of) her 
mother's work must have been painful, given her knowledge that that 
passionate feminist writer had died in giving life to her, to bestow 
upon Wollstonecraft's death from complications of childbirth the 



Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 223 

melodramatic cast it probably had for the girl herself. That Mary 
Shelley was conscious, moreover, of a strangely intimate relationship 
between her feelings toward her dead mother, her romance with a 
living poet, and her own sense of vocation as a reader and writer is 
made perfectly clear by her habit of "taking her books to Mary 
Wollstonecraft's grave in St. Pancras' Churchyard, there," as Muriel 
Spark puts it, "to pursue her studies in an atmosphere of communion 
with a mind greater than the second Mrs. Godwin's [and] to meet 
Shelley in secret." ,9 

Her mother's grave: the setting seems an unusually grim, even 
ghoulish locale for reading, writing, or lovemaking. Yet, to a girl 
with Mary Shelley's background, literary activities, like sexual ones, 
must have been primarily extensions of the elaborate, gothic psycho- 
drama of her family history. If her famous diary is largely a compen- 
dium of her reading lists and Shelley's that fact does not, therefore, 
suggest unusual reticence on her part. Rather, it emphasizes the 
point that for Mary, even more than for most writers, reading a book 
was often an emotional as well as an intellectual event of considerable 
magnitude. Especially because she never knew her mother, and 
because her father seemed so definitively to reject her after her 
youthful elopement, her principal mode of self-definition — certainly 
in the early years of her life with Shelley, when she was writing 
Frankenstein — was through reading, and to a lesser extent through 
writing. 

Endlessly studying her mother's works and her father's, Mary 
Shelley may be said to have "read" her family and to have been 
related to her reading, for books appear to have functioned as her 
surrogate parents, pages and words standing in for flesh and blood. 
That much of her reading was undertaken in Shelley's company, 
moreover, may also help explain some of this obsessiveness, for Mary's 
literary inheritance was obviously involved in her very literary 
romance and marriage. In the yearsjust before she wrote Frankenstein, 
for instance, and those when she was engaged in composing the novel 
(1816-17), she studied her parents' writings, alone or together with 
Shelley, like a scholarly detective seeking clues to the significance of 
some cryptic text. 20 

To be sure, this investigation of the mysteries of literary genealogy 
was done in a larger context. In these same years, Mary Shelley 



224 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton's Daughters 

recorded innumerable readings of contemporary gothic novels, as 
well as a program of study in English, French, and German literature 
that would do credit to a modern graduate student. But especially, 
in 1815, 1816, and 1817, she read the works of Milton: Paradise Lost 
(twice) , Paradise Regained, Comus, Areopagetica, Lycidas. And what makes 
the extent of this reading particularly impressive is the fact that in 
these years, her seventeenth to her twenty-first, Mary Shelley was 
almost continuously pregnant, "confined," or nursing. At the same 
time, it is precisely the coincidence of all these disparate activities — 
her family studies, her initiation into adult sexuality, and her literary 
self-education — that makes her vision of Paradise Lost so significant. 
For her developing sense of herself as a literary creature and/or creator 
seems to have been inseparable from her emerging self-definition as 
daughter, mistress, wife, and mother. Thus she cast her birth myth — 
her myth of origins — in precisely those cosmogenic terms to which 
her parents, her husband, and indeed her whole literary culture 
continually alluded : the terms of Paradise Lost, which (as she indicates 
even on the title page of her novel), she saw as preceding, paralleling, 
and commenting upon the Greek cosmogeny of the Prometheus play 
her husband had just translated. It is as a female fantasy of sex and 
reading, then, a gothic psychodrama reflecting Mary Shelley's own 
sense of what we might call bibliogenesis, that Frankenstein is a version 
of the misogynistic story implicit in Paradise Lost. 

It would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of Franken- 
stein's title page, with its allusive subtitle ("The Modern Prometheus") 
and carefully pointed Miltonic epigraph ("Did I request thee, Maker, 
from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness 
to promote me?"). But our first really serious clue to the highly 
literary nature of this history of a creature born outside history is its 
author's use of an unusually evidentiary technique for conveying the 
stories of her monster and his maker. Like a literary jigsaw puzzle, 
a collection of apparently random documents from whose juxtaposi- 
tion the scholar-detective must infer a meaning, Frankenstein consists 
of three "concentric circles" of narration (Walton's letters, Victor 
Frankenstein's recital to Walton, and the monster's speech to Frank- 
enstein), within which are embedded pockets of digression containing 



Horror's Twin : Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 225 

other miniature narratives (Frankenstein's mother's story, Elizabeth 
Lavenza's and Justine's stories, Felix's and Agatha's story, Safie's 
story), etc. 21 As we have noted, reading and assembling documentary 
evidence, examining it, analyzing it and researching it comprised 
for Shelley a crucial if voyeuristic method of exploring origins, 
explaining identity, understanding sexuality. Even more obviously, 
it was a way of researching and analyzing an emotionally unintelligi- 
ble text, like Paradise Lost. In a sense, then, even before Paradise Lost 
as a central item on the monster's reading list becomes a literal event 
in Frankenstein, the novel's literary structure prepares us to confront 
Milton's patriarchal epic, both as a sort of research problem and as 
the framework for a complex system of allusions. 

The book's dramatic situations are equally resonant. Like Mary 
Shelley, who was a puzzled but studious Miltonist, this novel's key 
characters — Walton, Frankenstein, and the monster — are obsessed 
with problem-solving. "I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the 
sight of a part of the world never before visited," exclaims the young 
explorer, Walton, as he embarks like a child "on an expedition of 
discovery up his native river" (2, letter 1). "While my companions 
contemplated . . . the magnificent appearance of things," declares 
Frankenstein, the scientist of sexual ontology, "I delighted in in- 
vestigating their causes" (22, chap. 2). "Who was I? What was I? 
Whence did I come?" (113-15, chap. 15) the monster reports 
wondering, describing endless speculations cast in Miltonic terms. 
All three, like Shelley herself, appear to be trying to understand their 
presence in a fallen world, and trying at the same time to define the 
nature of the lost paradise that must have existed before the fall. But 
unlike Adam, all three characters seem to have fallen not merely 
from Eden but from the earth, fallen directly into hell, like Sin, Satan, 
and — by implication — Eve. Thus their questionings are in some sense 
female, for they belong in that line of literary women's questionings 
of the fall into gender which goes back at least to Anne Finch's 
plaintive "How are we fal'n ?" and forward to Sylvia Plath's horrified 
"1 have fallen very far!" 22 

From the first, however, Frankenstein answers such neo-Miltonic 
questions mainly through explicit or implicit allusions to Milton, 
retelling the story of the fall not so much to protest against it as to 
clarify its meaning. The parallels between those two Promethean 



226 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

ovcrreachers Walton and Frankenstein, for instance, have always 
been clear to readers. But that both characters can, therefore, be 
described (the way Walton describes Frankenstein) as "fallen angels" 
is not as frequently remarked. Yet Frankenstein himself is perceptive 
enough to ask Walton "Do you share my madness?" at just the 
moment when the young explorer remarks Satanically that "One 
man's life or death were but a small price to pay ... for the dominion 
I [wish to] acquire" (13, letter 4). Plainly one fallen angel can 
recognize another. Alienated from his crew and chronically friendless, 
Walton tells his sister that he longs for a friend "on the wide ocean," 
and what he discovers in Victor Frankenstein is the fellowship of hell. 

In fact, like the many other secondary narratives Mary Shelley 
offers in her novel, Walton's story is itself an alternative version of 
the myth of origins presented in Paradise Lost. Writing his ambitious 
letters home from St. Petersburgh [sic], Archangel, and points north, 
Walton moves like Satan away from the sanctity and sanity rep- 
resented by his sister, his crew, and the allegorical names of the 
places he leaves. Like Satan, too, he seems at least in part to be 
exploring the frozen frontiers of hell in order to attempt a return to 
heaven, for the "country of eternal light" he envisions at the Pole 
( 1 , letter 1 ) has much in common with Milton's celestial "Fountain 
of Light" (PL 3. 375) , 23 Again, like Satan's (and Eve's) aspirations, 
his ambition has violated a patriarchal decree: his father's "dying 
injunction" had forbidden him "to embark on a seafaring life." 
Moreover, even the icy hell where Walton encounters Frankenstein 
and the monster is Miltonic, for all three of these diabolical wanderers 
must learn, like the fallen angels of Paradise Lost, that "Beyond this 
flood a frozen Continent / Lies dark and wild . . . / Thither by harpy- 
footed Furies hal'd,/At certain revolutions all the damn'd/Are 
brought . . . From Beds of raging Fire to starve in Ice" (PL 2. 587- 
600). 

Finally, another of Walton's revelations illuminates not only the 
likeness of his ambitions to Satan's but also the similarity of his 
anxieties to those of his female author. Speaking of his childhood, he 
reminds his sister that, because poetry had "lifted [my soul] to 
heaven," he had become a poet and "for one year lived in a paradise 
of my own creation." Then he adds ominously that "You are well- 
acquainted with my failure and how heavily I bore the disappoint- 



Horror's Twin : Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 227 

ment" (2-3, letter 1). But of course, as she confesses in her introduc- 
tion to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, too, had spent her childhood in 
"waking dreams" of literature; later, both she and her poet-husband 
hoped she would prove herself "worthy of [her] parentage and enroll 
[herself] on the page of fame" (xii). In a sense, then, given the 
Miltonic context in which Walton's story of poetic failure is set, it 
seems possible that one of the anxious fantasies his narrative helps 
Mary Shelley covertly examine is the fearful tale of a female fall from 
a lost paradise of art, speech, and autonomy into a hell of sexuality, 
silence, and filthy materiality, "A Universe of death, which God by 
curse / Created evil, for evil only good, /Where all life dies, death 
lives, and Nature breeds, / Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious 
things" (PL 2. 622-25). 



Walton and his new friend Victor Frankenstein have considerably 
more in common than a Byronic (or Monk Lewis-ish) Satanism. For 
one thing, both are orphans, as Frankenstein's monster is and as it 
turns out all the major and almost all the minor characters in Franken- 
stein are, from Caroline Beaufort and Elizabeth Lavenza to Justine, 
Felix, Agatha, and Safie. Victor Frankenstein has not always been an 
orphan, though, and Shelley devotes much space to an account of his 
family history. Family histories, in fact, especially those of orphans, 
appear to fascinate her, and wherever she can include one in the 
narrative she does so with an obsessiveness suggesting that through 
the disastrous tale of the child who becomes "an orphanand a beggar" 
she is once more recounting the story of the fall, the expulsion from 
paradise, and the confrontation of hell. For Milton's Adam and Eve, 
after all, began as motherless orphans reared (like Shelley herself) 
by a stern but kindly father-god, and ended as beggars rejected by 
God (as she was by Godwin when she eloped). Thus Caroline Beau- 
fort's father dies leaving her "an orphan and a beggar," and Elizabeth 
Lavenza also becomes "an orphan and a beggar" — the phrase is 
repeated (18, 20, chap. 1) — with the disappearance of her father 
into an Austrian dungeon. And though both girls are rescued by 
Alphonse Frankenstein, Victor's father, the early alienation from 
the patriarchal chain-of-being signalled by their orphanhood pre- 
figures the hellish fate in store for them and their family. Later, 



228 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton's Daughters 

motherless Safie and fatherless Justine enact similarly ominous 
anxiety fantasies about the fall of woman into orphanhood and 
beggary. 

Beyond their orphanhood, however, a universal sense of guilt links 
such diverse figures as Justine, Felix, and Elizabeth, just as it will 
eventually link Victor, Walton, and the monster. Justine, for instance, 
irrationally confesses to the murder of little William, though she 
knows perfectly well she is innocent. Even more irrationally, Elizabeth 
is reported by Alphonse Frankenstein to have exclaimed "Oh, God! 
I have murdered my darling child !" after her first sight of the corpse 
of little William (57, chap. 7). Victor, too, long before he knows 
that the monster is actually his brother's killer, decides that his 
"creature" has killed William and that therefore he, the creator, is 
the "true murderer": "the mere presence of the idea," he notes, is 
"an irresistable proof of the fact" (60, chap. 7) . Complicity in the 
murder of the child William is, it seems, another crucial component 
of the Original Sin shared by prominent members of the Frankenstein 
family. 

At the same time, the likenesses among all these characters — the 
common alienation, the shared guilt, the orphanhood and beggary — 
imply relationships of redundance between them like the solipsistic 
relationships among artfully placed mirrors. What reinforces our 
sense of this hellish solipsism is the barely disguised incest at the heart 
of a number of the marriages and romances the novel describes. 
Most notably, Victor Frankenstein is slated to marry his "more than 
sister" Elizabeth Lavenza, whom he confesses to having always 
considered "a possession of my own" (21, chap. 1). But the mysterious 
Mrs. Saville, to whom Walton's letters are addressed, is apparently 
in some sense his more than sister, just as Caroline Beaufort was clearly 
a "more than" wife, in fact a daughter, to her father's friend Alphonse 
Frankenstein. Even relationless Justine appears to have a metaphori- 
cally incestuous relationship with the Frankensteins, since as their 
servant she becomes their possession and more than sister, while the 
female monster Victor half-constructs in Scotland will be a more than 
sister as well as a mate to the monster, since both have the same 
parent/creator. 

Certainly at least some of this incest-obsession in Frankenstein is, as 
Ellen Moers remarks, the "standard" sensational matter of Romantic 



Horror's Twin : Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 229 

novels. 84 Some of it, too, even without the conventions of the gothic 
thriller, would be a natural subject for an impressionable young 
woman who had just spent several months in the company of the 
famously incestuous author of Manfred.** Nevertheless, the streak of 
incest that darkens Frankenstein probably owes as much to the book's 
Miltonic framework as it does to Mary Shelley's own life and times. 
In the Edenic cosiness of their childhood, for instance, Victor and 
Elizabeth are incestuous as Adam and Eve are, literally incestuous 
because they have the same creator, and figuratively so because 
Elizabeth is Victor's pretty plaything, the image of an angelic soul 
or "epipsyche" created from his own soul just as Eve is created from 
Adam's rib. Similarly, the incestuous relationships of Satan and Sin, 
and by implication of Satan and Eve, are mirrored in the incest 
fantasies of Frankenstein, including the disguised but intensely sexual 
waking dream in which Victor Frankenstein in effect couples with 
his monster by applying "the instruments of life" to its body and 
inducing a shudder of response (42, chap. 5). For Milton, and 
therefore for Mary Shelley, who was trying to understand Milton, 
incest was an inescapable metaphor for the solipsistic fever of self- 
awareness that Matthew Arnold was later to call "the dialogue of the 
mind with itself." 4 * 

If Victor Frankenstein can be likened to both Adam and Satan, 
however, who or what is he really? Here we are obliged to confront 
both the moral ambiguity and the symbolic slipperiness which are 
at the heart of all the characterizations in Frankenstein. In fact, it is 
probably these continual and complex reallocations of meaning, 
among characters whose histories echo and re-echo each other, that 
have been so bewildering to critics. Like figures in a dream, all the 
people in Frankenstein have different bodies and somehow, horribly, 
the same face, or worse — the same two faces. For this reason, as 
Muriel Spark notes, even the book's subtitle "The Modern Pro- 
metheus" is ambiguous, "for though at first Frankenstein is himself 
the Prometheus, the vital fire-endowing protagonist, the Monster, 
as soon as he is created, takes on [a different aspect of] the role." 2 ' 
Moreover, if we postulate that Mary Shelley is more concerned with 
Milton than she is with Aeschylus, the intertwining of meanings grows 
even more confusing, as the monster himself several times points out 
to Frankenstein, noting "I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather 



230 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

the fallen angel," (84, chap. 10), then adding elsewhere that "God, 
in pity, made man beautiful . . . after His own image ; but my form 
is a filthy type of yours. . . . Satan had his companions . . . but I am 
solitary and abhorred" (115, chap. 15). In other words, not only do 
Frankenstein and his monster both in one way or another enact the 
story of Prometheus, each is at one time or another like God (Victor 
as creator, the monster as his creator's "Master"), like Adam (Victor 
as innocent child, the monster as primordial "creature"), and like 
Satan (Victor as tormented overreacher, the monster as vengeful 
fiend). 

What is the reason for this continual duplication and reduplication 
of roles? Most obviously, perhaps, the dreamlike shifting of fantasy 
figures from part to part, costume to costume, tells us that we are in 
fact dealing with the psychodrama or waking dream that Shelley 
herself suspected she had written. Beyond this, however, we would 
argue that the fluidity of the narrative's symbolic scheme reinforces 
in another way the crucial significance of the Miltonic skeleton around 
which Mary Shelley's hideous progeny took shape. For it becomes 
increasingly clear as one reads Frankenstein with Paradise Lost in mind 
that because the novel's author is such an inveterate student of 
literature, families, and sexuality, and because she is using her novel 
as a tool to help her make sense of her reading, Frankenstein is ultimately 
a mock Paradise Lost in which both Victor and his monster, together 
with a number of secondary characters, play all the neo-biblical parts 
over and over again — all except, it seems at first, the part of Eve. Not 
just the striking omission of any obvious Eve-figure from this 
"woman's book" about Milton, but also the barely concealed sexual 
components of the story as well as our earlier analysis of Milton's 
bogey should tell us, however, that for Mary Shelley the part of 
Eve is all the parts. 



On the surface, Victor seems at first more Adamic than Satanic 
or Eve-like. His Edenic childhood is an interlude of prelapsarian 
innocence in which, like Adam, he is sheltered by his benevolent 
father as a sensitive plant might be "sheltered by the gardener, from 
every rougher wind" (19-20, chap. 1). When cherubic Elizabeth 
Lavenza joins the family, she seems as "heaven-sent" as Milton's 



Honor's Twin : Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 231 

Eve, as much Victor's "possession" as Adam's rib is Adam's. More- 
over, though he is evidently forbidden almost nothing ("My parents 
[were not] tyrants . . . but the agents and creators of many delights"), 
Victor hints to Walton that his deific father, like Adam's and Walton's, 
did on one occasion arbitrarily forbid him to pursue his interest in 
arcane knowledge. Indeed, like Eve and Satan, Victor blames his 
own fall at least in part on his father's apparent arbitrariness. "If. . . 
my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of 
Agrippa had been entirely exploded. ... It is even possible that the 
train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that 
led to my ruin" (24-25, chap. 2). And soon after asserting this he 
even associates an incident in which a tree is struck by Jovian thunder 
bolts with his feelings about his forbidden studies. 

As his researches into the "secrets of nature" become more feverish, 
however, and as his ambition "to explore unknown powers" grows 
more intense, Victor begins to metamorphose from Adam to Satan, 
becoming "as Gods" in his capacity of "bestowing animation upon 
lifeless matter," laboring like a guilty artist to complete his false 
creation. Finally, in his conversations with Walton he echoes Milton's 
fallen angel, and Marlowe's, in his frequently reiterated confession 
that "I bore a hell within me which nothing could extinguish" (72, 
chap. 8). Indeed, as the "true murderer" of innocence, here cast in 
the form of the child William, Victor perceives himself as a diabolical 
creator whose mind has involuntarily "let loose" a monstrous and 
"filthy demon" in much the same way that Milton's Satan's swelled 
head produced Sin, the disgusting monster he "let loose" upon the 
world. Watching a "noble war in the sky" that seems almost like an 
intentional reminder that we are participating in a critical rearrange- 
ment of most of the elements of Paradise Lost, he explains that "I 
considered the being whom I had cast among mankind . . . nearly 
in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the 
grave and forced to destroy all that was dear to me" (61, chap. 7). 

Even while it is the final sign and seal of Victor's transformation 
from Adam to Satan, however, it is perhaps the Sin-ful murder of the 
child William that is our first overt clue to the real nature of the 
bewilderingly disguised set of identity shifts and parallels Mary 
Shelley incorporated into Frankenstein. For as we saw earlier, not 
just Victor and the monster but also Elizabeth and Justine insist 



232 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

upon responsibility for the monster's misdeed. Feeling "as if I had 
been guilty of a crime" (41, chap. 4) even before one had been 
committed, Victor responds to the news of William's death with the 
same self-accusations that torment the two orphans. And, signi- 
ficantly, for all three — as well as for the monster and little William 
himself — one focal point of both crime and guilt is an image of that 
other beautiful orphan, Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein. Passing 
from hand to hand, pocket to pocket, the smiling miniature of Victor's 
"angel mother" seems a token of some secret fellowship in sin, as 
does Victor's post-creation nightmare of transforming a lovely, living 
Elizabeth, with a single magical kiss, into "the corpse of my dead 
mother" enveloped in a shroud made more horrible by "grave- worms 
crawling in the folds of the flannel" (42, chap. 5). Though it has been 
disguised, buried, or miniaturized, femaleness — the gender definition 
of mothers and daughters, orphans and beggars, monsters and false 
creators — is at the heart of this apparently masculine book. 

Because this is so, it eventually becomes clear that though Victor 
Frankenstein enacts the roles of Adam and Satan like a child trying 
on costumes, his single most self-defining act transforms him defini- 
tively into Eve. For as both Ellen Moers and Marc Rubenstein have 
pointed out, after much study of the "cause of generation and life," 
after locking himself away from ordinary society in the tradition of 
such agonized mothers as Wollstonecraft's Maria, Eliot's Hetty Sorel, 
and Hardy's Tess, Victor Frankenstein has a baby. 28 His "pregnancy" 
and childbirth are obviously manifested by the existence of the 
paradoxically huge being who emerges from his "workshop of filthy 
creation," but even the descriptive language of his creation myth is 
suggestive: "incredible labours," "emaciated with confinement," "a 
passing trance," "oppressed by a slow fever," "nervous to a painful 
degree," "exercise and amusement would . . . drive away incipient 
disease," "the instruments of life" (39-41, chap. 4), etc. And, like 
Eve's fall into guilty knowledge and painful maternity, Victor's 
entrance into what Blake would call the realm of "generation" is 
marked by a recognition of the necessary interdependence of those 
complementary opposites, sex and death: "To examine the causes 
of life, we must first have recourse to death," he observes (36, chap. 
4), and in his isolated workshop of filthy creation — filthy because 
obscenely sexual 29 — he collects and arranges materials furnished by 



Horror's Twin : Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 233 

"the dissecting room and the slaughterhouse." Pursuing "nature to 
her hiding places" as Eve does in eating the apple, he learns that "the 
tremendous secrets of the human frame" are the interlocked secrets 
of sex and death, although, again like Eve, in his first mad pursuit 
of knowledge he knows not "eating death." But that his actual 
orgasmic animation of his monster-child takes place "on a dreary 
night in November," month of All Souls, short days, and the year's 
last slide toward death, merely reinforces the Miltonic and Blakean 
nature of his act of generation. 

Even while Victor Frankenstein's self-defining procreation dramat- 
ically transforms him into an Eve-figure, however, our recognition 
of its implications reflects backward upon our sense of Victor-as-Satan 
and our earlier vision of Victor-as-Adam. Victor as Satan, we now 
realize, was never really the masculine, Byronic Satan of the first 
book of Paradise Lost, but always, instead, the curiously female, 
outcast Satan who gave birth to Sin. In his Eve-like pride ("I was 
surprised . . . that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing 
a secret" [37, chap. 4]), this Victor-Satan becomes "dizzy" with his 
creative powers, so that his monstrous pregnancy, bookishly and 
solipsistically conceived, reenacts as a terrible bibliogenesis the 
moment when, in Milton's version, Satan "dizzy swum / In darkness, 
while [his] head flames thick and fast /Threw forth, till on the left 
side op'ning wide" and Sin, Death's mother-to-be, appeared like 
"a Sign / Portentous" {PL 2: 753-61). Because he has conceived — 
or, rather, misconceived — his monstrous offspring by brooding upon 
the wrong books, moreover, this Victor-Satan is paradigmatic, like 
the falsely creative fallen angel, of the female artist, whose anxiety 
about her own aesthetic activity is expressed, for instance, in Mary 
Shelley's deferential introductory phrase about her "hideous prog- 
eny," with its plain implication that in her alienated attic workshop 
of filthy creation she has given birth to a deformed book, a literary 
abortion or miscarriage. "How [did] I, then a young girl, [come] to 
think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea?" is a key (if 
disingenuous) question she records. But we should not overlook her 
word play upon dilate, just as we should not ignore the anxious pun 
on the word author that is so deeply embedded in Frankenstein. 

If the adult, Satanic Victor is Eve-like both in his procreation and 
his anxious creation, even the young, prelapsarian, and Adamic 



234 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

Victor is — to risk a pun — curiously female, that is, Eve-like. Innocent 
and guided by silken threads like a Blakeian lamb in a Godwinian 
garden, he is consumed by "a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets 
of nature," a longing which — expressed in his explorations of "vaults 
and charnelhouses," his guilty observations of "the unhallowed 
damps of the grave," and his passion to understand "the structure of 
the human frame" — recalls the criminal female curiosity that led 
Psyche to lose love by gazing upon its secret face, Eve to insist upon 
consuming "intellectual food," and Prometheus's sister-in-law Pan- 
dora to open the forbidden box of fleshly ills. But if Victor-Adam is 
also Victor-Eve, what is the real significance of the episode in which, 
away at school and cut off from his family, he locks himself into his 
workshop of filthy creation and gives birth by intellectual parturition 
to a giant monster? Isn't it precisely at this point in the novel that 
he discovers he is not Adam but Eve, not Satan but Sin, not male but 
female? If so, it seems likely that what this crucial section of Franken- 
stein really enacts is the story of Eve's discovery not that she must fall 
but that, having been created female, she is fallen, femaleness and 
fallenness being essentially synonymous. For what Victor Franken- 
stein most importantly learns, we must remember, is that he is the 
"author" of the monster — for him alone is "reserved ... so astonishing 
a secret" — and thus it is he who is "the true murderer," he who 
unleashes Sin and Death upon the world, he who dreams the primal 
kiss that incestuously kills both "sister" and "mother." Doomed and 
filthy, is he not, then, Eve instead of Adam? In fact, may not the story 
of the fall be, for women, the story of the discovery that one is not 
innocent and Adam (as one had supposed) but Eve, and fallen? 
Perhaps this is what Freud's cruel but metaphorically accurate 
concept of penis-envy really means: the girl-child's surprised dis- 
covery that she is female, hence fallen, inadequate. Certainly the 
almost grotesquely anxious self-analysis implicit in Victor Franken- 
stein's (and Mary Shelley's) multiform relationships to Eve, Adam, 
God, and Satan suggest as much. 

The discovery that one is fallen is in a sense a discovery that one 
is a monster, a murderer, a being gnawed by "the never-dying worm" 
(72, chap. 8) and therefore capable of any horror, including but not 



Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 235 

limited to sex, death, and filthy literary creation. More, the discovery 
that one is fallen — self-divided, murderous, material — is the dis- 
covery that one has released a "vampire" upon the world, "forced 
to destroy all that [is] dear" (61, chap. 7). For this reason — because 
Frankenstein is a story of woman's fall told by, as it were, an apparently 
docile daughter to a censorious "father" — the monster's narrative 
is embedded at the heart of the novel like the secret of the fall itself. 
Indeed, just as Frankenstein's workshop, with its maddening, riddling 
answers to cosmic questions is a hidden but commanding attic 
womb/room where the young artist-scientist murders to dissect and 
to recreate, so the murderous monster's single, carefully guarded 
narrative commands and controls Mary Shelley's novel. Delivered 
at the top of Mont Blanc — like the North Pole one of the Shelley 
family's metaphors for the indifferently powerful source of creation 
and destruction — it is the story of deformed Geraldine in "Chris- 
tabel," the story of the dead-alive crew in "The Ancient Mariner," 
the story of Eve in Paradise Lost, and of her degraded double Sin — all 
secondary or female characters to whom male authors have im- 
periously denied any chance of self-explanation. 30 At the same time 
the monster's narrative is a philosophical meditation on what it 
means to be born without a "soul" or a history, as well as an explora- 
tion of what it feels like to be a "filthy mass that move[s] and talk[s]," 
a thing, an other, a creature of the second sex. In fact, though it 
tends to be ignored by critics (and film-makers), whose emphasis 
has always fallen upon Frankenstein himself as the archetypal mad 
scientist, the drastic shift in point of view that the nameless monster's 
monologue represents probably constitutes Frankenstein's most striking 
technical tour deforce, just as the monster's bitter self-revelations are 
Mary Shelley's most impressive and original achievement.* 1 

Like Victor Frankenstein, his author and superficially better self, 
the monster enacts in turn the roles of Adam and Satan, and even 
eventually hints at a sort of digression into the role of God. Like 
Adam, he recalls a time of primordial innocence, his days and nights 
in "the forest near Ingolstadt," where he ate berries, learned about 
heat and cold, and perceived "the boundaries of the radiant roof of 
light which canopied me" (88, chap. 11). Almost too quickly, how- 
ever, he metamorphoses into an outcast and Satanic figure, hiding in 
a shepherd's hut which seems to him "as exquisite ... a retreat as 



236 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton's Daughters 

Pandemonium ... after ... the lake of fire" (90, chap. 11). Later, 
when he secretly sets up housekeeping behind the De Laceys' pigpen, 
his wistful observations of the loving though exiled family and their 
pastoral abode( "Happy, happy earth! Fit habitation for gods ..." 
[100, chap. 12]) recall Satan's mingled jealousy and admiration of 
that "happy rural seat of various view" where Adam and Eve are 
emparadised by God and Milton (PL 4. 247). Eventually, burning 
the cottage and murdering William in demonic rage, he seems to 
become entirely Satanic: "I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within 
me" (121, chap. 16) ; "Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred . . . 
to all mankind" (126, chap. 16). At the same time, in his assertion 
of power over his "author," his mental conception of another creature 
(a female monster), and his implicit dream of founding a new, 
vegetarian race somewhere in "the vast wilds of South America," 
(131, chap. 17), he temporarily enacts the part of a God, a creator, 
a master, albeit a failed one. 

As the monster himself points out, however, each of these Miltonic 
roles is a Procrustean bed into which he simply cannot fit. Where, for 
instance, Victor Frankenstein's childhood really was Edenic, the 
monster's anxious infancy is isolated and ignorant, rather than in- 
sulated or innocent, so that his groping arrival at self-consciousness — 
"I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew and could distin- 
guish nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, 1 sat down and 
wept" (87-88, chap. 1 1) — is a fiercely subversive parody of Adam's 
exuberant "all things smil'd, / With fragrance and with joy my heart 
o'erflowed. / Myself I then perus'd, and Limb by Limb / Survey'd, 
and sometimes went, and sometimes ran / With supple joints, as lively 
vigor led" (PL 8. 265-69). Similarly, the monster's attempts at 
speech ("Sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own 
mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from 
me frightened me into silence again" (88, chap. 11) parody and 
subvert Adam's ("To speak I tri'd, and forthwith spake, / My Tongue 
obey'd and readily could name / Whate'er I saw" (PL 8. 271-72). 
And of course the monster's anxiety and confusion ("What was I? 
The question again recurred to be answered only with groans" 
[106, chap. 13]) are a dark version of Adam's wondering bliss ("who 
I was, or where, or from what cause, / [I] Knew not. . . . [But I] 
feel that I am happier than I know" (PL 8. 270-71, 282). 



Honor's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 237 

Similarly, though his uncontrollable rage, his alienation, even his 
enormous size and superhuman physical strength bring him closer 
to Satan than he was to Adam, the monster puzzles over discrepancies 
between his situation and the fallen angel's. Though he is, for example, 
"in bulk as huge /As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,/ 
Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr'd on Jove," and though, indeed, 
he is fated to war like Prometheus on Jovean Frankenstein, this 
demon/monster has fallen from no heaven, exercised no power of 
choice, and been endowed with no companions in evil. "I found 
myself similar yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings 
concerning whom I read and to whose conversation I was a listener," 
he tells Frankenstein, describing his schooldays in the De Lacey 
pigpen (113, chap. 15). And, interestingly, his remark might well 
have been made by Mary Shelley herself, that "devout but nearly 
silent listener" (xiv) to masculine conversations who, like her hideous 
progeny, "continually studied and exercised [her] mind upon" such 
"histories" as Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and The Sorrows of 
Werter [sic] "whilst [her] friends were employed in their ordinary 
occupations" (112, chap. 15). 

In fact, it is his intellectual similarity to his authoress (rather than 
his "author") which first suggests that Victor Frankenstein's male 
monster may really be a female in disguise. Certainly the books which 
educate him — Werter, Plutarch's Lives, and Paradise Lost — are not 
only books Mary had herself read in 1815, the year before she wrote 
Frankenstein, but they also typify just the literary categories she thought 
it necessary to study: the contemporary novel of sensibility, the 
serious history of Western civilization, and the highly cultivated 
epic poem. As specific works, moreover, each must have seemed to 
her to embody lessons a female author (or monster) must learn about 
a male-dominated society. Werter's story, says the monster — and 
he seems to be speaking for Mary Shelley — taught him about "gentle 
and domestic manners," and about "lofty sentiments . . . which had 
for their object something out of self." It functioned, in other words, 
as a sort of Romantic conduct book. In addition, it served as an 
introduction to the virtues of the proto-Byronic "Man of Feeling," 
for, admiring Werter and never mentioning Lotte, the monster 
explains to Victor that "I thought Werter himself a more divine 
being than I had ever . . . imagined," adding, in a line whose female 



238 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

irony about male self-dramatization must surely have been inten- 
tional, "I wept [his extinction] without precisely understanding it" 
(113, chap. 15). 

If Wetter introduces the monster to female modes of domesticity 
and self-abnegation, as well as to the unattainable glamour of male 
heroism, Plutarch's Lives teaches him all the masculine intricacies 
of that history which his anomalous birth has denied him. Mary 
Shelley, excluding herself from the household of the second Mrs. 
Godwin and studying family as well as literary history on her mother's 
grave, must, again, have found in her own experience an appropriate 
model for the plight of a monster who, as James Rieger notes, is 
especially characterized by "his unique knowledge of what it is like 
to be born free of history."** In terms of the disguised story the novel 
tells, however, this monster is not unique at all, but representative, 
as Shelley may have suspected she herself was. For, as Jane Austen 
has Catherine Morland suggest in Northanger Abbey, what is woman 
but man without a history, at least without the sort of history related 
in Plutarch's Lives? "History, real solemn history, I cannot be in- 
terested in," Catherine declares "... the men all so good for nothing, 
and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome" {NA I, chap. 14). 

But of course the third and most crucial book referred to in the 
miniature Bildungsroman of the monster's narrative is Paradise Lost, 
an epic myth of origins which is of major importance to him, as it is 
to Mary Shelley, precisely because, unlike Plutarch, it does provide 
him with what appears to be a personal history. And again, even the 
need for such a history draws Shelley's monster closer not only to 
the realistically ignorant female defined by Jane Austen but also to 
the archetypal female defined by John Milton. For, like the monster, 
like Catherine Morland, and like Mary Shelley herself, Eve is charac- 
terized by her "unique knowledge of what it is like to be born free 
of history," even though as the "Mother of Mankind" she is fated to 
"make" history. It is to Adam, after all, that God and His angels 
grant explanatory visions of past and future. At such moments of 
high historical colloquy Eve tends to excuse herself with "lowliness 
Majestic" (before the fall) or (after the fall) she is magically put to 
sleep, calmed like a frightened animal "with gentle Dreams . . . and 
all her spirits compos'd/To meek submission" {PL 12. 595-96). 

Nevertheless, one of the most notable facts about the monster's 



Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 239 

ceaselessly anxious study of Paradise Lost is his failure even to mention 
Eve. As an insistently male monster, on the surface of his palimpsestic 
narrative he appears to be absorbed in Milton's epic only because, 
as Percy Shelley wrote in the preface to Frankenstein that he drafted 
for his wife, Paradise Lost "most especially" conveys "the truth of the 
elementary principles of human nature," and conveys that truth 
in the dynamic tensions developed among its male characters, Adam, 
Satan, and God (xvii). Yet not only the monster's uniquely ahistorical 
birth, his literary anxieties, and the sense his readings (like Mary's) 
foster that he must have been parented, if at all, by books; not only 
all these facts and traits but also his shuddering sense of deformity, 
his nauseating size, his namelessness, and his orphaned, motherless 
isolation link him with Eve and with Eve's double, Sin. Indeed, at 
several points in his impassioned analysis of Milton's story he seems 
almost on the verge of saying so, as he examines the disjunctions 
among Adam, Satan, and himself: 

Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other 
being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in 
every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God 
a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guided by the especial 
care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire 
knowledge from beings of a superior nature, but I was wretched, 
helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter 
emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the 
bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me. . . . 
Accursed creator ! Why did you form a monster so hideous that 
even^ou turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man 
beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a 
filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. 
Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and en- 
courage him, but I am solitary and abhorred. [114-15, chap. 15] 

It is Eve, after all, who languishes helpless and alone, while Adam 
converses with superior beings, and it is Eve in whom the Satanically 
bitter gall of envy rises, causing her to eat the apple in the hope of 
adding "what wants/ In Female Sex." It is Eve, moreover, to whom 
deathly isolation is threatened should Adam reject her, an isolation 
more terrible even than Satan's alienation from heaven. And finally 



240 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

it is Eve whose body, like her mind, is said by Milton to resemble 
"less /His Image who made both, and less [to express] /The 
character of that Dominion giv'n / O'er other Creatures ..." (PL 
8. 543-46). In fact, to a sexually anxious reader, Eve's body might, 
like Sin's, seem "horrid even from [its] very resemblance" to her 
husband's, a "filthy" or obscene version of the human form divine. 33 

As we argued earlier, women have seen themselves (because they 
have been seen) as monstrous, vile, degraded creatures, second- 
comers, and emblems of filthy materiality, even though they have 
also been traditionally defined as superior spiritual beings, angels, 
better halves. "Woman [is] a temple built over a sewer," said the 
Church father Tertullian, and Milton seems to see Eve as both temple 
and sewer, echoing that patristic misogyny. 34 Mary Shelley's con- 
scious or unconscious awareness of the monster woman implicit in the 
angel woman is perhaps clearest in the revisionary scene where her 
monster, as if taking his cue from Eve in Paradise Lost book 4, first 
catches sight of his own image: "I had admired the perfect forms of 
my cottagers . . . but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in 
a transparent pool. At first I started back, unable to believe that it 
was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became 
fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, 1 was 
filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification" 
(98-99, chap. 12). In one sense, this is a corrective to Milton's 
blindness about Eve. Having been created second, inferior, a mere 
rib, how could she possibly, this passage implies, have seemed 
anything but monstrous to herself? In another sense, however, the 
scene supplements Milton's description of Eve's introduction to 
herself, for ironically, though her reflection in "the clear /Smooth 
Lake" is as beautiful as the monster's is ugly, the self-absorption that 
Eve's confessed passion for her own image signals is plainly meant 
by Milton to seem morally ugly, a hint of her potential for spiritual 
deformity: "There I had fixt/Mine eyes till now, and pin'd with 
vain desire, / Had not a voice thus warn'd me, What thou seest, / What 
there thou seest fair Creature is thyself. . . " (PL 4. 465-68). 

The figurative monstrosity of female narcissism is a subtle de- 
formity, however, in comparison with the literal monstrosity many 
women are taught to see as characteristic of their own bodies. 
Adrienne Rich's twentieth-century description of "a woman in the 



Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 241 

shape of a monster /A monster in the shape of a woman" is merely 
the latest in a long line of monstrous female self-definitions that 
includes the fearful images in Djuna Barnes's Book of Repulsive Women, 
Denise Levertov's "a white sweating bull of a poet told us / our cunts 
are ugly" and Sylvia Plath's "old yellow" self of the poem "In 
Plaster." 3 * Animal and misshapen, these emblems of self-loathing 
must have descended at least in part from the distended body of 
Mary Shelley's darkly parodic Eve/Sin/Monster, whose enormity 
betokens not only the enormity of Victor Frankenstein's crime and 
Satan's bulk but also the distentions or deformities of pregnancy 
and the Swiftian sexual nausea expressed in Lemuel Gulliver's 
horrified description of a Brobdignagian breast, a passage Mary 
Shelley no doubt studied along with the rest of Gulliver's Travels 
when she read the book in 1816, shortly before beginning Fran- 
kensiein. 3 * 

At the same time, just as surely as Eve's moral deformity is symbol- 
ized by the monster's physical malformation, the monster's physical 
ugliness represents his social illegitimacy, his bastardy, his nameless- 
ness. Bitchy and dastardly as Shakespeare's Edmund, whose asso- 
ciation with filthy femaleness is established not only by his devotion 
to the material/maternal goddess Nature but also by his interlocking 
affairs with those filthy females Goneril and Regan, Mary Shelley's 
monster has also been "got" in a "dark and vicious place." Indeed, 
in his vile illegitimacy he seems to incarnate that bestial "unname- 
able" place. And significantly, he is himself as nameless as a woman 
is in patriarchal society, as nameless as unmarried, illegitimately 
pregnant Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin may have felt herself to be 
at the time she wrote Frankenstein. 

"This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good," 
Mary commented when she learned that it was the custom at 
early dramatizations of Frankenstein to place a blank line next to 
the name of the actor who played the part of the monster. 37 But 
her pleased surprise was disingenuous, for the problem of names 
and their connection with social legitimacy had been forced into 
her consciousness all her life. As the sister of illegitimate and therefore 
nameless Fanny Imlay, for instance, she knew what bastardy meant, 
and she knew it too as the mother of a premature and illegitimate 
baby girl who died at the age of two weeks without ever having 



242 How Are We FaVn? Milton's Daughters 

been given a name. Of course, when Fanny dramatically excised 
her name from her suicide note Mary learned more about the 
significance even of insignificant names. And as the stepsister of 
Mary Jane Clairmont, who defined herself as the "creature" of 
Lord Byron and changed her name for a while with astonishing 
frequency (from Mary Jane to Jane to Clara to Claire), Mary knew 
about the importance of names too. Perhaps most of all, though, 
Mary's sense of the fearful significance of legitimate and illegitimate 
names must have been formed by her awareness that her own name, 
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was absolutely identical with the 
name of the mother who had died in giving birth to her. Since this 
was so, she may have speculated, perhaps her own monstrosity, her 
murderous illegitimacy, consisted in her being — like Victor Franken- 
stein's creation — a reanimation of the dead, a sort of galvanized 
corpse ironically arisen from what should have been "the cradle of 
life." 

This implicit fantasy of the reanimation of the dead in the mon- 
strous and nameless body of the living returns us, however, to the 
matter of the monster's Satanic, Sin-ful and Eve-like moral deformity. 
For of course the crimes that the monster commits once he has 
accepted the world's definition of him as little more than a namelessly 
"filthy mass" all reinforce his connection with Milton's unholy 
trinity of Sin, Eve/Satan, and Death. The child of two authors 
(Victor Frankenstein and Mary Shelley) whose mothers have been 
stolen away by death, this motherless monster is after all made from 
dead bodies, from loathsome parts found around cemeteries, so that 
it seems only "natural" for him to continue the Blakeian cycle of 
despair his birth began, by bringing further death into the world. 
And of course he brings death, in the central actions of the novel: 
death to the childish innocence of little William (whose name is 
that of Mary Shelley's father, her half-brother, and her son, so that 
one can hardly decide to which male relative she may have been 
alluding) ; death to the faith and truth of allegorically named Justine; 
death to the legitimate artistry of the Shelleyan poet Clerval; and 
death to the ladylike selflessness of angelic Elizabeth. Is he acting, 
in his vile way, for Mary Shelley, whose elegant femininity seemed, 
in view of her books, so incongruous to the poet Beddoes and to 
literary Lord Dillon? "She has no business to be a woman by her 



Horror's Twin: Maty Shelley's Monstrous Eve 243 

books," noted Beddoes. And "your writing and your manners are 
not in accordance," Dillon told Mary herself. "I should have thought 
of you — if I had only read you — that you were a sort of . . . Sybil, 
outpouringly enthusiastic . . . but you are cool, quiet and feminine 
to the last degree. . . . Explain this to me." 88 

Could Mary's coolness have been made possible by the heat of 
her monster's rage, the strain of her decorous silence eased by the 
demonic abandon of her nameless monster's ritual fire dance around 
the cottage of his rejecting "Protectors" ? Does Mary's cadaverous 
creature want to bring more death into the world because he has 
failed — like those other awful females, Eve and Sin — to win the 
compassion of that blind and curiously Miltonic old man, the 
Godlike musical patriarch De Lacey? Significantly, he is clinging 
to the blind man's knees, begging for recognition and help — "Do 
not you desert me in the hour of trial!" — when Felix, the son of the 
house, appears like the felicitous hero he is, and, says the monster, 
"with supernatural force [he] tore me from his father ... in a trans- 
port of fury, he dashed me to the ground and struck me violently 
with a stick . . . my heart sank within me as with bitter sickness" 
(119, chap. 15). Despite everything we have been told about the 
monster's physical vileness, Felix's rage seems excessive in terms of 
the novel's overt story. But as an action in the covert plot — the tale 
of the blind rejection of women by misogynistic/ Miltonic patriarchy 
— it is inevitable and appropriate. Even more psychologically 
appropriate is the fact that having been so definitively rejected by a 
world of fathers, the monster takes his revenge, first by murdering 
William, a male child who invokes his father's name ("My papa is 
a syndic — he is M. Frankenstein — he will punish you") and then 
by beginning a doomed search for a maternal, female principle in 
the harsh society that has created him. 

In this connection, it begins to be plain that Eve's — and the 
monster's — motherlessness must have had extraordinary cultural and 
personal significance for Mary Shelley. "We think back through our 
mothers if we are women," wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's 
Own. 3 * But of course one of the most dramatic emblems of Eve's 
alienation from the masculine garden in which she finds herself is 
her motherlessness. Because she is made in the image of a man who 
is himself made in the image of a male creator, her unprecedented 



244 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

femininity seems merely a defective masculinity, a deformity like the 
monster's inhuman body. 40 In fact, as we saw, the only maternal 
model in Paradise Lost is the terrifying figure of Sin. (That Eve's 
punishment for her sin is the doom of agonized maternity— the doom 
of painfully becoming no longer herself but "Mother of Human 
Race" — appears therefore to seal the grim parallel.) But all these 
powerful symbols would be bound to take on personal weight and 
darkness for Shelley, whose only real "mother" was a tombstone — 
or a shelf of books — and who, like all orphans, must have feared 
that she had been deliberately deserted by her dead parent, or that, 
if she was a monster, then her hidden, underground mother must 
have been one too. 

For all these reasons, then, the monster's attitude toward the 
possibility (or impossibility) of finding a mother is unusually con- 
flicted and complex. At first, horrified by what he knows of the only 
"mother" he has ever had — Victor Frankenstein — he regards his 
parentage with loathing. Characteristically, he learns the specific 
details of his "conception" and "birth" (as Mary Shelley may have 
learned of hers) through reading, for Victor has kept a journal which 
records "that series of disgusting circumstances" leading "to the 
production of [the monster's] . . . loathsome person."* 1 Later, how- 
ever, the ill-fated miniature of Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein, 
Victor's "angel mother," momentarily "attractfs]" him. In fact, 
he claims it is because he is "forever deprived of the delights that 
such beautiful creatures could bestow" that he resolves to implicate 
Justine in the murder of William. His reproachful explanation is 
curious, though ("The crime had its source in her; be hers the 
punishment"), as is the sinister rape fantasy he enacts by the side 
of the sleeping orphan ("Awake, fairest, thy lover is near — he who 
would give his life but to obtain one look of affection from thine 
eyes" [127-28, chap. 16]). Clearly feelings of rage, terror, and sexual 
nausea, as well as idealizing sentiments, accrete for Mary and the 
monster around the maternal female image, a fact which explains 
the later climactic wedding-night murder of apparently innocent 
Elizabeth. In this fierce, Miltonic world, Frankenstein says, the angel 
woman and the monster woman alike must die, if they are not dead 
already. And what is to be feared above all else is the reanimation 
of the dead, specifically of the maternal dead. Perhaps that is why a 



Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 245 

significant pun is embedded in the crucial birth scene ("It was on a 
dreary night of November") that, according to Mary Shelley, rose 
"unbidden" from her imagination. Looking at the "demoniacal 
corpse to which I had so miserably given life," Victor remarks that 
"A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as 
that wretch" (43, chap. 5). For a similarly horrific (and equally 
punning) statement of sexual nausea, one would have to go back 
to Donne's "Loves Alchymie" with its urgent, misogynistic impera- 
tive : "Hope not for minde in women ; at their best / Sweetnesse and 
wit, they are but/ Mummy possest." 

Interestingly, the literary group at Villa Diodati received a packet 
of books containing, among other poems, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 
recently published "Christabel," shortly before Mary had her 
monster-dream and began her ghost story. More influential than 
"Loves Alchymie" — a poem Mary may or may not have read — 
"Christabel" 's vision of femaleness must have been embodied for 
the author of Frankenstein not only in the witch Geraldine's withered 
side and consequent self-loathing ("Ah! What a stricken look was 
hers!") but also in her anxiety about the ghost of Christabel's dead 
mother ("Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!") and in Chris- 
tabel's "Woe is me / She died the hour that I was born." But even 
without Donne's puns or Coleridge's Romanticized male definition 
of deathly maternity, Mary Shelley would have absorbed a keen 
sense of the agony of female sexuality, and specifically of the perils 
of motherhood, not just from Paradise Lost and from her own mother's 
fearfully exemplary fate but also from Wollstonecraft's almost 
prophetically anxious writings. 

Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1797), which Mary read in 1814 
(and possibly in 1815) is about, among other "wrongs," Maria's 
search for her lost child, her fears that "she" (for the fantasied child 
is a daughter) may have been murdered by her unscrupulous father, 
and her attempts to reconcile herself to the child's death. In a suicide 
scene that Wollstonecraft drafted shortly before her own death, as 
her daughter must have known, Maria swallows laudanum: "her 
soul was calm . . . nothing remained but an eager longing ... to fly 
. . . from this hell of disappointment. Still her eyes closed not. . . . 
Her murdered child again appeared to her . . . [But] 'Surely it is 
better to die with me, than to enter on life without a mother's care !'" 48 



246 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

Plainly, Frankenstein's pained ambivalence toward mothers and 
mummies is in some sense a response to Maria's agonized reaching — 
from beyond the grave, it may have seemed — toward a daughter. 
"Off, wandering mother ! Peak and pine !" It is no wonder if 
Coleridge's poem gave Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley bad 
dreams, no wonder if she saw Milton's "Mother of Human Race" 
as a sorrowful monster. 



Though Frankenstein itself began with a Coleridgean and Miltonic 
nightmare of filthy creation that reached its nadir in the monster's 
revelation of filthy femaleness, Mary Shelley, like Victor Franken- 
stein himself, evidently needed to distance such monstrous secrets. 
Sinful, motherless Eve and sinned-against, daughterless Maria, both 
paradigms of woman's helpless alienation in a male society, briefly 
emerge from the sea of male heroes and villains in which they have 
almost been lost, but the ice soon closes over their heads again, just 
as it closes around those two insane figure-skaters, Victor Franken- 
stein and his hideous offspring. Moving outward from the central 
"birth myth" to the icy perimeter on which the novel began, we find 
ourselves caught up once more in Walton's naive polar journey, 
where Frankenstein and his monster reappear as two embattled 
grotesques, distant and archetypal figures solipstically drifting away 
from each other on separate icebergs. In Walton's scheme of things, 
they look again like God and Adam, Satanically conceived. But 
now, with our more nearly complete understanding of the bewildered 
and bewildering perspective Mary Shelley adopted as "Milton's 
daughter," we see that they were Eve and Eve all along. 

Nevertheless, though Shelley did manage to still the monster's 
suffering and Frankenstein's and her own by transporting all three 
from the fires of filthy creation back to the ice and silence of the 
Pole, she was never entirely to abandon the sublimated rage her 
monster-self enacted, and never to abandon, either, the metaphysical 
ambitions Frankenstein incarnated. In The Last Man she introduced, 
as Spark points out, "a new, inhuman protagonist," PLAGUE (the 
name is almost always spelled entirely in capitals), who is charac- 
terized as female and who sees to it that "disaster is no longer the 
property of the individual but of the entire human race." 43 And of 



Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve 247 

course PLAGUE'S story is the one that Mary claims to have found 
in the Sibyl's cave, a tale of a literally female monster that was 
merely foreshadowed by the more subdued narrative of "The 
Modern Prometheus." 

Interestingly, PLAGUE'S story ends with a vision of last things, 
a vision of judgment and of paradise nihilistically restored that 
balances Frankenstein's vision of first things. With all of humanity 
wiped out by the monster PLAGUE, just as the entire Frankenstein 
family was destroyed by Victor's monster, Lionel Verney, the narra- 
tor, goes to Rome, that cradle of patriarchal civilization whose ruins 
had seemed so majestically emblematic to both Byron and Shelley. 
But where Mary's husband had written of the great city in a kind 
of ecstasy, his widow has her disinherited "last man" wander law- 
lessly about empty Rome until finally he resolves, finding "parts of a 
manuscript . . . scattered about," that "I also will write a book . . . 
[but] for whom to read? — to whom dedicated? And then with silly 
flourish (what so capricious and childish as despair?) I wrote, 

DEDICATION 

TO THE ILLUSTRIOUS DEAD 

SHADOWS, ARISE, AND READ YOUR FALL! 

BEHOLD THE HISTORY OF THE LAST MAN. 4 * 

His hostile, ironic, literary gesture illuminates not only his own 
career but his author's. For the annihilation of history may well be 
the final revenge of the monster who has been denied a true place 
in history : the moral is one that Mary Shelley's first hideous progeny, 
like Milton's Eve, seems to have understood from the beginning. 




Looking Oppositely : 
Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 



Down from the waist they are Centaurs, 

Though women all above : 

But to the girdle do the Gods inherit, 

Beneath is all the fiend's: there's hell, there's darkness, 

There is the sulphurous pit. . . 

— King Lear 

It indeed appear'd to Reason as if Desire was cast out, but the 
Devils account is, that the Messiah fell. & formed a heaven of what 
he stole from the Abyss 

—William Blake 

A loss of something ever felt I — 
The first that I could recollect 
Bereft I was — of what I knew not 
Too young that any should suspect 

A Mourner walked among the children 
I notwithstanding went about 
As one bemoaning a Dominion 
Itself the only Prince cast out — 

Elder, Today, a session wiser 
And fainter, too, as Wiseness is — 
I find myself still softly searching 
For my Delinquent Palaces — 

And a Suspicion, like a Finger 
Touches my Forehead now and then 
That I am looking oppositely 
For the site of the Kingdom of Heaven — 
— Emily Dickinson 

248 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 249 

Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights (1847) are not usually seen as 
related works, except insofar as both are famous nineteenth-century 
literary puzzles, with Shelley's plaintive speculation about where she 
got so "hideous an idea" finding its counterpart in the position of 
Heathcliff's creator as a sort of mystery woman of literature. Still, if 
both Bronte and Shelley wrote enigmatic, curiously unprecedented 
novels, their works are puzzling in different ways: Shelley's is an 
enigmatic fantasy of metaphysical horror, Bronte's an enigmatic 
romance of metaphysical passion. Shelley produced an allusive, 
Romantic, and "masculine" text in which the fates of subordinate 
female characters seem entirely dependent upon the actions of osten- 
sibly male heroes or anti-heroes. Bronte produced a more realistic 
narrative in which "the perdurable voice of the country," as Mark 
Schorer describes Nelly Dean, introduces us to a world where men 
battle for the favors of apparently high-spirited and independent 
women. 1 

Despite these dissimilarities, however, Frankenstein and Wuthering 
Heights are alike in a number of crucial ways. For one thing, both 
works are enigmatic, puzzling, even in some sense generically prob- 
lematical. Moreover, in each case the mystery of the novel is associated 
with what seem to be its metaphysical intentions, intentions around 
which much critical controversy has collected. For these two "popu- 
lar" novels — one a thriller, the other a romance — have convinced 
many readers that their charismatic surfaces conceal (far more than 
they reveal) complex ontological depths, elaborate structures of 
allusion, fierce though shadowy moral ambitions. And this point in 
particular is demonstrated by a simpler characteristic both works 
have in common. Both make use of what in connection with Franken- 
stein we called an evidentiary narrative technique, a Romantic 
story-telling method that emphasizes the ironic disjunctions between 
different perspectives on the same events as well as the ironic tensions 
that inhere in the relationship between surface drama and concealed 
authorial intention. In fact, in its use of such a technique, Wuthering 
Heights might be a deliberate copy of Frankenstein. Not only do the 
stories of both novels emerge through concentric circles of narration, 
both works contain significant digressions. Catherine Earnshaw's 
diary, Isabella's letter, Zillah's narrative, and Heathcliff's con- 
fidences to Nelly function in Wuthering Heights much as Alphonse 



250 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

Frankenstein's letter, Justine's narrative, and Safie's history do in 
Frankenstein. 

Their common concern with evidence, especially with written 
evidence, suggests still another way in which Wuthering Heights and 
Frankenstein are alike: more than most novels, both are consciously 
literary works, at times almost obsessively concerned with books 
and with reading as not only a symbolic but a dramatic — plot- 
forwarding. — activity. Can this be because, like Shelley, Bronte was 
something of a literary heiress? The idea is an odd one to consider, 
because the four Bronte children, scribbling in Yorkshire's remote 
West Riding, seem as trapped on the periphery of nineteenth- 
century literary culture as Mary Shelley was embedded in its God- 
winian and Byronic center. Nevertheless, peripheral though they 
were, the Brontes had literary parents just as Mary Shelley did : the 
Reverend Patrick Bronte was in his youth the author of several books 
of poetry, a novel, and a collection of sermons, and Maria Bran well, 
the girl he married, apparently also had some literary abilities. 2 
And of course, besides having obscure literary parents Emily Bronte 
had literary siblings, though they too were in most of her own lifetime 
almost as unknown as their parents. 

Is it coincidental that the author of Wuthering Heights was the sister 
of the authors of Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey? Did the parents, especially 
the father, bequeath a frustrated drive toward literary success to 
their children? These are interesting though unanswerable questions, 
but they imply a point that is crucial in any consideration of the 
Brontes, just as it was important in thinking about Mary Shelley: it 
was the habit in the Bronte family, as in the Wollstonecraft-Godwin- 
Shelley family, to approach reality through the mediating agency 
of books, to read one's relatives, and to feel related to one's reading. 
Thus the transformation of three lonely yet ambitious Yorkshire 
governesses into the magisterially androgynous trio of Currer, Ellis, 
and Acton Bell was a communal act, an assertion of family identity. 
And significantly, even the games these writers played as children 
prepared them for such a literary mode of self-definition. As most 
Bronte admirers know, the four young inhabitants of Haworth 
Parsonage began producing extended narratives at an early age, 
and these eventually led to the authorship of a large library of minia- 
ture books which constitutes perhaps the most famous juvenilia in 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 251 

English. Though in subject matter these works are divided into two 
groups — one, the history of the imaginary kingdom of Gondal, 
written by Emily and Anne, and the other, stories of the equally 
imaginary land of Angria, written by Charlotte and Branwell — all 
four children read and discussed all the tales, and even served as 
models for characters in many. Thus the Brontes' deepest feelings of 
kinship appear to have been expressed first in literary collaboration 
and private childish attempts at fictionalizing each other, and then, 
later, in the public collaboration the sisters undertook with the ill-fated 
collection of poetry that was their first "real" publication. Finally 
Charlotte, the last survivor of these prodigious siblings, memorialized 
her lost sisters in print, both in fiction and in non-fiction (Shirley, 
for instance, mythologizes Emily). Given the traditions of her family, 
it was no doubt inevitable that, for her, writing — not only novel- 
writing but the writing of prefaces to "family" works — would replace 
tombstone-raising, hymn-singing, maybe even weeping. 8 

That both literary activity and literary evidence were so important 
to the Brontes may be traced to another problem they shared with 
Mary Shelley. Like the anxious creator of Frankenstein, the authors of 
Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall lost their 
mother when they were very young. Like Shelley, indeed, Emily 
and Anne Bronte were too young when their mother died even to 
know much about her except through the evidence of older survivors 
and perhaps through some documents. Just as Frankenstein, with its 
emphasis on orphans and beggars, is a motherless book, so all the 
Bronte novels betray intense feelings of motherlessness, orphanhood, 
destitution. And in particular the problems of literary orphanhood 
seem to lead in Wuthering Heights, as in Frankenstein, not only to a 
concern with surviving evidence but also to a fascination with the 
question of origins. Thus if all women writers, metaphorical orphans 
in patriarchal culture, seek literary answers to the questions "How 
are we fal'n, / Fal'n by mistaken rules ... ?" motherless orphans like 
Mary Shelley and Emily Bronte almost seem to seek literal answers 
to that question, so passionately do their novels enact distinctive 
female literary obsessions. 

Finally, that such a psychodramatic enactment is going on in both 
Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein suggests a similarity between the 
two novels which brings us back to the tension between dramatic 



252 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton's Daughters 

surfaces and metaphysical depths with which we began this discussion. 
For just as one of Frankenstein' % most puzzling traits is the symbolic 
ambiguity or fluidity its characters display when they are studied 
closely, so one of Wuthering Heights's key elements is what Leo Bersani 
calls its "ontological slipperiness." 4 In fact, because it is a metaphysical 
romance (just as Frankenstein is a metaphysical thriller) Wuthering 
Heights seems at times to be about forces or beings rather than people, 
which is no doubt one reason why some critics have thought it 
generically problematical, maybe not a novel at all but instead an 
extended exemplum, or a "prosified" verse drama. And just as all 
the characters in Frankenstein are in a sense the same two characters, 
so "everyone [in Wuthering Heights] is finally related to everyone else 
and, in a sense, repeated in everyone else," as if the novel, like an 
illustration of Freud's "Das Unheimlische," were about "the danger 
of being haunted by alien versions of the self." 3 But when it is created 
by a woman in the misogynistic context of Western literary culture, 
this sort of anxiously philosophical, problem-solving, myth-making 
narrative must — so it seems — inevitably come to grips with the 
countervailing stories told by patriarchal poetry, and specifically by 
Milton's patriarchal poetry. 



Milton, Winifred Gerin tells us, was one of Patrick Bronte's favorite 
writers, so if Shelley was Milton's critic's daughter, Bronte was 
Milton's admirer's daughter. 8 By the Hegelian law of thesis/antithesis, 
then, it seems appropriate that Shelley chose to repeat and restate 
Milton's misogynistic story while Bronte chose to correct it. In fact 
the most serious matter Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein share is 
the matter of Paradise Lost, and their profoundest difference is in 
their attitude toward Milton's myth. Where Shelley was Milton's 
dutiful daughter, retelling his story to clarify it, Bronte was the poet's 
rebellious child, radically revising (and even reversing) the terms of 
his mythic narrative. Given the fact that Bronte never mentions 
either Milton or Paradise Lost in Wuthering Heights, any identification 
of her as Milton's daughter may at first seem eccentric or perverse. 
Shelley, after all, provided an overtly Miltonic framework in Franken- 
stein to reinforce our sense of her literary intentions. But despite the 
absence of Milton references, it eventually becomes plain that 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 253 

Wuthering Heights is also a novel haunted by Milton's bogey. We may 
speculate, indeed, that Milton's absence is itself a presence, so 
painfully does Bronte's story dwell on the places and persons of his 
imagination. 

That Wuthering Heights is about heaven and hell, for instance, has 
long been seen by critics, partly because all the narrative voices, 
from the beginning of Lockwood's first visit to the Heights, insist 
upon casting both action and description in religious terms, and 
partly because one of the first Catherine's major speeches to Nelly 
Dean raises the questions "What is heaven? Where is hell?" perhaps 
more urgently than any other speech in an English novel : 

"If I were in heaven, Nelly, I should be extremely miserable. . . . 
I dreamt once that I was there [and] that heaven did not seem to 
be my home, and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to 
earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into 
the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where 
I woke sobbing for joy."' 

Satan too, however — at least Satan as Milton's prototypical Byronic 
hero — has long been considered a participant in Wuthering Heights, 
for "that devil HeathclifT," as both demon lover and ferocious natural 
force, is a phenomenon critics have always studied. Isabella's "Is 
Mr. HeathclifT a man? If so, is he mad? And if not is he a devil?" 
(chap. 13) summarizes the traditional HeathclifT problem most 
succincdy, but Nelly's "I was inclined to believe . . . that conscience 
had turned his heart to an earthly hell" (chap. 33) more obviously 
echoes Paradise Lost. 

Again, that Wuthering Heights is in some sense about a fall has 
frequently been suggested, though critics from Charlotte Bronte to 
Mark Schorer, Q. D. Leavis, and Leo Bersani have always disputed 
its exact nature and moral implications. Is Catherine's fall the 
archetypal fall of the Bildungsroman protagonist ? Is HeathclifT's fall, 
his perverted "moral teething," a shadow of Catherine's? Which of 
the two worlds of Wuthering Heights (if either) does Bronte mean to 
represent the truly "fallen" world? These are just some of the con- 
troversies that have traditionally attended this issue. Nevertheless, 
that the story of Wuthering Heights is built around a central fall seems 
indisputable, so that a description of the novel as in part a Bildungs- 



254 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

roman about a girl's passage from "innocence" to "experience" 
(leaving aside the precise meaning of those terms) would probably 
also be widely accepted. And that the fall in Wuthering Heights has 
Miltonic overtones is no doubt culturally inevitable. But even if it 
weren't, the Miltonic implications of the action would be clear enough 
from the "mad scene" in which Catherine describes herself as "an 
exile, and outcast . . . from what had been my world," adding "Why 
am I so changed? Why does my blood rush into a hell of tumult at 
a few words?" (chap. 12). Given the metaphysical nature of Wuthering 
Heights, Catherine's definition of herself as "an exile and outcast" 
inevitably suggests those trail-blazing exiles and outcasts Adam, Eve, 
and Satan. And her Romantic question — "Why am I so changed?" — 
with its desperate straining after the roots of identity, must ultimately 
refer back to Satan's hesitant (but equally crucial) speech to Beelze- 
bub, as they lie stunned in the lake of fire: "If thou be'est he; But 
0...howchang'd"(/ > £1.84). 

Of course, Wuthering Heights has often, also, been seen as a sub- 
versively visionary novel. Indeed, Bronte is frequently coupled with 
Blake as a practitioner of mystical politics. Usually, however, as if 
her book were written to illustrate the enigmatic religion of "No 
coward soul is mine," this visionary quality is related to Catherine's 
assertion that she is tired of "being enclosed" in "this shattered 
prison" of her body, and "wearying to escape into that glorious world, 
and to be always there" (chap. 15). Many readers define Bronte, 
in other words, as a ferocious pantheist/transcendentalist, worshipping 
the manifestations of the One in rock, tree, cloud, man and woman, 
while manipulating her story to bring about a Romantic Liebestod 
in which favored characters enter "the endless and shadowless 
hereafter." And certainly such ideas, like Blake's Songs of Innocence, 
are "something heterodox," to use Lockwood's phrase. At the same 
time, however, they are soothingly rather than disquietingly neo- 
Miltonic, like ficdonalized visions of Paradise Lost's luminous Father 
God. They are, in fact, the ideas of "steady, reasonable" Nelly Dean, 
whose denial of the demonic in life, along with her commitment to 
the angelic tranquility of death, represents only one of the visionary 
alternatives in Wuthering Heights. And, like Blake's metaphor of the 
lamb, Nelly's pious alternative has no real meaning for Bronte 
outside of the context provided by its tigerish opposite. 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 255 

The tigerish opposite implied by Wuthering Heights emerges most 
dramatically when we bring all the novel's Miltonic elements together 
with its author's personal concerns in an attempt at a single formula- 
tion of Bronte's metaphysical intentions: the sum of this novel's 
visionary parts is an almost shocking re visionary whole. Heaven (or 
its rejection), hell, Satan, a fall, mystical politics, metaphysical 
romance, orphanhood, and the question of origins — disparate as 
some of these matters may seem, they all cohere in a rebelliously 
topsy-turvy retelling of Milton's and Western culture's central tale 
of the fall of woman and her shadow self, Satan. This fall, says Bronte, 
is not a fall into hell. It is a fall from "hell" into "heaven," not a fall 
from grace( in the religious sense) but a fall into grace( in the cultural 
sense). Moreover, for the heroine who falls it is the loss of Satan rather 
than the loss of God that signals the painful passage from innocence 
to experience. Emily Bronte, in other words, is not just Blakeian in 
"double" mystical vision, but Blakeian in a tough, radically political 
commitment to the belief that the state of being patriarchal Chris- 
tianity calls "hell" is eternally, energetically delightful, whereas the 
state called "heaven" is rigidly hierarchical, Urizenic, and "kind" 
as a poison tree. But because she was metaphorically one of Milton's 
daughters, Bronte differs from Blake, that powerful son of a powerful 
father, in reversing the terms of Milton's Christian cosmogony for 
specifically feminist reasons. 

Speaking of Jane Lead, a seventeenth-century Protestant mystic 
who was a significant precursor of Bronte's in visionary sexual politics, 
Catherine Smith has noted that "to study mysticism and feminism 
together is to learn more about the links between envisioning power 
and pursuing it," adding that "Idealist notions of transcendence may 
shape political notions of sexual equality as much as materialist or 
rationalist arguments do." 8 Her points are applicable to Bronte, 
whose revisionary mysticism is inseparable from both politics and 
feminism, although her emphasis is more on the loss than on the 
pursuit of power. Nevertheless, the feminist nature of her concern 
with neo-Miltonic definitions of hell and heaven, power and power- 
lessness, innocence and experience, has generally been overlooked by 
critics, many of whom, at their most biographical, tend to ask 
patronizing questions like "What is the matter with Emily Jane?" 9 
Interestingly, however, certain women understood Bronte's feminist 



256 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton's Daughters 

mythologies from the first. Speculating on the genesis of A. G. A., 
the fiery Byronic queen of Gondal with whose life and loves Emily 
Bronte was always obsessed, Fanny Ratchford noted in 1955 that 
while Arthur Wellesley, the emperor of Charlotte Bronte's fantasy 
kingdom of Angria, was "an arch-Byronic hero, for love of whom 
noble ladies went into romantic decline, . . . Gondal's queen was of 
such compelling beauty and charm as to bring all men to her feet, 
and of such selfish cruelty as to bring tragedy to all who loved her. . . . 
It was as if Emily was saying to Charlotte, 'You think the man is the 
dominant factor in romantic love, I'll show you it is the woman.'" 10 
But of course Charlotte herself understood Emily's revisionary ten- 
dencies better than anyone. More than one hundred years before 
Ratchford wrote, the heroine of Shirley, that apotheosis of Emily 
"as she would have been in a happier life," speaks the English novel's 
first deliberately feminist criticism of Milton — "Milton did not see 
Eve, it was his cook that he saw" — and proposes as her alternative 
the Titan woman we discussed earlier, the mate of "Genius" and the 
potentially Satanic interlocutor of God. Some readers, including most 
recently the Marxist critic Terence Eagleton, have spoken scornfully 
of the "maundering rhetoric of Shirley's embarrassing feminist mys- 
ticism." 11 But Charlotte, who was intellectually as well as physically 
akin to Emily, had captured the serious deliberation in her sister's 
vision. She knew that the author of Wuthering Heights was — to quote 
the Brontes' admirer Emily Dickinson — "looking oppositely / For the 
site of the Kingdom of Heaven" (J. 959). 



Because Emily Bronte was looking oppositely not only for heaven 
(and hell) but for her own female origins, Wuthering Heights is one of 
the few authentic instances of novelistic myth-making, myth-making 
in the functional sense of problem-solving. Where writers from 
Charlotte Bronte and Henry James to James Joyce and Virginia 
Woolf have used mythic material to give point and structure to their 
novels, Emily Bronte uses the novel form to give substance — plausi- 
bility, really — to her myth. It is urgent that she do so because, as we 
shall see, the feminist cogency of this myth derives not only from its 
daring corrections of Milton but also from the fact that it is a 
distinctively nineteenth-century answer to the question of origins : 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 257 

it is the myth of how culture came about, and specifically of how 
nineteenth-century society occurred, the tale of where tea-tables, 
sofas, crinolines, and parsonages like the one at Haworth came from. 

Because it is so ambitious a myth, Wuthering Heights has the puzzling 
self-containment of a mystery in the old sense of that word — the sense 
of mystery plays and Eleusinian mysteries. Locked in by Lockwood's 
uncomprehending narrative, Nelly Dean's story, with its baffling 
duplication of names, places, events, seems endlessly to reenact itself, 
like some ritual that must be cyclically repeated in order to sustain 
(as well as explain) both nature and culture. At the same time, 
because it is so prosaic a myth — a myth about crinolines ! — Wuthering 
Heights is not in the least portentous or self-consciously "mythic." 
On the contrary, like all true rituals and myths, Bronte's "cuckoo's 
tale" turns a practical, casual, humorous face to its audience. For as 
Levi-Straus's observations suggest, true believers gossip by the prayer 
wheel, since that modern reverence which enjoins solemnity is simply 
the foster child of modern skepticism. 12 

Gossipy but unconventional true believers were rare, even in the 
pious nineteenth century, as Arnold's anxious meditations and 
Carlyle's angry sermons note. But Bronte's paradoxically matter-of- 
fact imaginative strength, her ability to enter a realistically freckled 
fantasy land, manifested itself early. One of her most famous adoles- 
cent diary papers juxtaposes a plea for culinary help from the 
parsonage housekeeper, Tabby — "Come Anne pilloputate" — with 
"The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine" and "Sally 
Mosely is washing in the back kitchen." 13 Significandy, no distincdon 
is made between the heroic exploits of the fictional Gondals and Sally 
Mosely's real washday business. The curiously childlike voice of the 
diarist records all events without commentary, and this reserve 
suggests an implicit acquiescence in the equal "truth" of all events. 
Eleven years later, when the sixteen-year-old reporter of "pilloputate" 
has grown up and is on the edge of Wuthering Heights, the naive, 
uninflected surface of her diary papers is unchanged : 

. . . Anne and I went our first long journey by ourselves together, 
leaving home on the 30th of June, Monday, sleeping at York, 
returning to Keighley Tuesday evening . . . during our excursion 
we were Ronald Mcalgin, Henry Angora, Juliet Angusteena, 



258 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

Rosabella Esmaldcn, Ella and Julian Egremont, Catharine 
Navarre, and Cordilia Fitzaphnold, escaping from the palaces 
of instruction to join the Royalists who are hard driven at 
present by the victorious Republicans. ... I must hurry off now 
to my turning and ironing. I have plenty of work on hands, and 
writing, and am altogether full of business. 14 

Psychodramatic "play," this passage suggests, is an activity at once 
as necessary and as ordinary as housework : ironing and the explora- 
tion of alternative lives are the same kind of "business" — a perhaps 
uniquely female idea of which Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson, 
those other visionary housekeepers, would have approved. 

No doubt, however, it is this deep-seated tendency of Bronte's to 
live literally with the fantastic that accounts for much of the critical 
disputation about Wuthering Heights, especially the quarrels about the 
novel's genre and style. Q. D. Leavis and Arnold Kettle, for instance, 
insist that the work is a "sociological novel," while Mark Schorer 
thinks it "means to be a work of edification [about] the nature of a 
grand passion." Leo Bersani sees it as an ontological psychodrama, 
and Elliot Gose as a sort of expanded fairytale. 14 And strangely there 
is truth in all these apparently conflicting notions, just as it is also 
true that (as Robert Kiely has affirmed) "part of the distinction of 
Wuthering Heights [is] that it has no 'literary' aura about it," and true 
at the same time that (as we have asserted) Wuthering Heights is an 
unusually literary novel because Bronte approached reality chiefly 
through the mediating agency of literature. 18 In fact, Kiely's comment 
illuminates not only the uninflected surface of the diary papers but 
also the controversies about their author's novel, for Bronte is "un- 
literary" in being without a received sense of what the eighteenth 
century called literary decorum. As one of her better-known poems 
declares, she follows "where [her] own nature would be leading," 
and that nature leads her to an oddly literal — and also, therefore, 
unliterary — use of extraordinarily various literary works, ideas, and 
genres, all of which she refers back to herself, since "it vexes [her] 
to choose another guide." " 

Thus Wuthering Heights is in one sense an elaborate gloss on the 
Byronic Romanticism and incest fantasy of Manfred, written, as 
Ratchford suggested, from a consciously female perspective. Heath- 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 259 

cliff's passionate invocations of Catherine ("Come in! . . . hear me" 
[chap. 3] or "Be with me always — take any form — drive me mad" 
[chap. 16]) almost exactly echo Manfred's famous speech to Astarte 
("Hear me, hear me . . . speak to me! Though it be in wrath . . . "). 18 
In another way, though, Wuthering Heights is a prose redaction of the 
metaphysical storms and ontological nature/culture conflicts em- 
bodied in King Lear, with Heathcliff taking the part of Nature's 
bastard son Edmund, Edgar Linton incarnating the cultivated mor- 
ality of his namesake Edgar, and the "wuthering" chaos at the 
Heights repeating the disorder that overwhelms Lear's kingdom when 
he relinquishes his patriarchal control to his diabolical daughters. But 
again, both poetic Byronic Romanticism and dramatic Shakespearean 
metaphysics are filtered through a novelistic sensibility with a sur- 
prisingly Austenian grasp of social details, so that Wuthering Heights 
seems also, in its "unliterary" way, to reiterate the feminist psycholog- 
ical concerns of a Bildungsroman Bronte may never have read : Jane 
Austen's Northanger Abbey. Catherine Earnshaw's "half savage and 
hardy and free" girlhood, for example, recalls the tomboy childhood 
of that other Catherine, Catherine Morland, and Catherine Earn- 
shaw's fall into ladylike "grace" seems to explore the tragic underside 
of the anxiously comic initiation rites Catherine Morland undergoes 
at Bath and at Northanger Abbey. 19 

The world of Wuthering Heights, in other words, like the world of 
Bronte's diary papers, is one where what seem to be the most unlikely 
opposites coexist without, apparently, any consciousness on the 
author's part that there is anything unlikely in their coexistence. The 
ghosts of Byron, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen haunt the same 
ground. People with decent Christian names (Catherine, Nelly, 
Edgar, Isabella) inhabit a landscape in which also dwell people with 
strange animal or nature names (Hindley, Hareton, Heathcliff). 
Fairy-tale events out of what Mircea Eliade would call "great time" 
are given a local habitation and a real chronology in just that 
historical present Eliade defines as great time's opposite. 20 Dogs and 
gods (or goddesses) turn out to be not opposites but, figuratively 
speaking, the same words spelled in different ways. Funerals are 
weddings, weddings funerals. And of course, most important for our 
purposes here, hell is heaven, heaven hell, though the two are not 
separated, as Milton and literary decorum would prescribe, by vast 



260 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

eons of space but by a little strip of turf, for Bronte was rebelliously 
determined to walk 

. . . not in old heroic traces 

And not in paths of high morality. 

And not among the half-distinguished faces, 

The clouded forms of long-past history. 

On the contrary, surveying that history and its implications, she 
came to the revisionary conclusion that "the earth that wakes one 
human heart to feeling / Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and 
Hell."" 



If we identify with Lockwood, civilized man at his most genteelly 
"cooked" and literary, we cannot fail to begin Bronte's novel by 
deciding that hell is a household very like Wuthering Heights. 
Lockwood himself, as if wittily predicting the reversal of values that 
is to be the story's central concern, at first calls the place "a perfect 
misanthropist's Heaven" (chap. 1). But then what is the traditional 
Miltonic or Dantesque hell if not a misanthropist's heaven, a site 
that substitutes hate for love, violence for peace, death for life, and 
in consequence the material for the spiritual, disorder for order? 
Certainly Wuthering Heights rings all these changes on Lockwood's 
first two visits. Heathchff's first invitation to enter, for instance, is 
uttered through closed teeth, and appropriately enough it seems to 
his visitor to express "the sentiment 'Go to the Deuce.'" The house's 
other inhabitants — Catherine II, Hareton, Joseph, and Zillah, as 
we later learn — are for the most part equally hostile on both occasions, 
with Joseph muttering insults, Hareton surly, and Catherine II 
actually practicing (or pretending to practice) the "black arts." 22 
Their energies of hatred, moreover, are directed not only at their 
uninvited guest but at each other, as Lockwood learns to his sorrow 
when Catherine II suggests that Hareton should accompany him 
through the storm and Hareton refuses to do so if it would please her. 

The general air of sour hatred that blankets the Heights, moreover, 
manifests itself in a continual, aimless violence, a violence most 
particularly embodied in the snarling dogs that inhabit the premises. 
"In an arch under the dresser," Lockwood notes, "reposed a huge, 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 261 

liver-coloured bitch pointer, surrounded by a swarm of squealing 
puppies; and other dogs haunted other recesses" (chap. 1). His use of 
haunted is apt, for these animals, as he later remarks, are more like 
"four-footed fiends" than ordinary canines, and in particular Juno, 
the matriarch of the "hive," seems to be a parody of Milton's grotes- 
quely maternal Sin, with her yapping brood of hellhounds. Signi- 
ficantly, too, the only nonhostile creatures in this fiercely Satanic 
stronghold are dead : in one of a series of blackly comic blunders, 
Lockwood compliments Catherine II on what in his decorous way 
he assumes are her cats, only to learn that the "cats" are just a heap 
of dead rabbits. In addition, though the kitchen is separate from the 
central family room, "a vast oak dresser" reaching "to the very roof" 
of the sitting room is laden with oatcakes, guns, and raw meat: 
"clusters of legs of beef, mutton, and ham." Dead or raw flesh and 
the instruments by which living bodies may be converted into more 
dead flesh are such distinctive features of the room that even the piles 
of oatcakes and the "immense pewter dishes . . . towering row after 
row" (chap. 1 ) suggest that, like hell or the land at the top of the 
beanstalk, Wuthering Heights is the abode of some particularly 
bloodthirsty giant. 

The disorder that quite naturally accompanies the hatred, violence, 
and death that prevail at Wuthering Heights on Lockwood's first 
visits leads to more of the city-bred gentleman's blunders, in pardcular 
his inability to fathom the relationships among the three principal 
members of the household's pseudo-family — Catherine II, Hareton, 
and Heathchff. First he suggests that the girl is HeathclifT's "amiable 
lady," then surmises that Hareton is "the favoured possessor of the 
beneficent fairy" (chap. 2). His phrases, like most of his assumpdons, 
parody the sentimentality of fictions that keep women in their "place" 
by defining them as beneficent fairies or amiable ladies. Heathchff, 
perceiving this, adds a third stereotype to the discussion : "You would 
intimate that [my wife's] spirit has taken the form of ministering 
angel," he comments with the "almost diabolical sneer" of a Satanic 
literary critic. But of course, though Lockwood's thinking is stereo- 
typical, he is right to expect some familial relationship among his 
tea-table companions, and right too to be daunted by the hellish lack 
of relationship among them. For though Hareton, HeathclifT, and 
Catherine II are all in some sense related, the primordial schisms that 



262 Mow Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

have overwhelmed the Heights with hatred and violence have divided 
them from the human orderliness represented by the ties of kinship. 
Thus just as Milton's hell consists of envious and (in the poet's view) 
equality-mad devils jostling for position, so these inhabitants of 
Wuthering Heights seem to live in chaos without the structuring 
principle of heaven's hierarchical chain of being, and therefore 
without the heavenly harmony God the Father's ranking of virtues, 
thrones, and powers makes possible. For this reason Catherine sullenly 
refuses to do anything "except what I please" (chap. 4), the servant 
Zillah vociferously rebukes Hareton for laughing, and old Joseph — 
whose viciously parodic religion seems here to represent a hellish 
joke at heaven's expense — lets the dogs loose on Linton without 
consulting his "maister," Heathcliff. 

In keeping with this problem of "equality," a final and perhaps 
definitive sign of the hellishness that has enveloped Wuthering 
Heights at the time of Lockwood's first visits is the blinding snowfall 
that temporarily imprisons the by now unwilling guest in the home 
of his infernal hosts. Pathless as the kingdom of the damned, the 
"billowy white ocean" of cold that surrounds Wuthering Heights 
recalls the freezing polar sea on which Frankenstein, Walton, the 
monster — and the Ancient Mariner — voyaged. It recalls, too, the 
"deep snow and ice" of Milton's hell, "A gulf profound as that 
Serbonian Bog . . . Where Armies whole have sunk" and where "by 
harpy-footed" and no doubt rather Heathcliff-ish "Furies hal'd / . . . 
all the damn'd/ Are brought ... to starve in Ice" (PL 2. 592-600). 
But of course, as King Lear implies, hell is simply another word for 
uncontrolled "nature," and here as elsewhere Wuthering Heights 
follows Lear's model. 

Engulfing the Earnshaws' ancestral home and the Lintons', too, 
in a blizzard of destruction, hellish nature traps and freezes everyone 
in the isolation of a "perfect misanthropist's heaven." And again, as 
in Lear this hellish nature is somehow female or associated with 
femaleness, like an angry goddess shaking locks of ice and introducing 
Lockwood (and his readers) to the female rage that will be a central 
theme in Wuthering Heights. The femaleness of this "natural" hell is 
suggested, too, by its likeness to the "false" material creation Robert 
Graves analyzed so well in The White Goddess. Female nature has 
risen, it seems, in a storm of protest, just as the Sin-like dog Juno 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 263 

rises in a fury when Lockwood "unfortunately indulge[s] in winking 
and making faces" at her while musing on his heartless treatment of 
a "goddess" to whom he never "told" his love (chap. 1). Finally, that 
the storm is both hellish and female is made clearest of all by Lock- 
wood's second visionary dream. Out of the tapping of branches, out 
of the wind and swirling snow, like an icy-fingered incarnation of the 
storm rising in protest against the patriarchal sermon of "Jabes 
Branderham," appears that ghostly female witch-child the original 
Catherine Earnshaw, who has now been "a waif for twenty years." 



Why is Wuthering Heights so Miltonically hellish? And what 
happened to Catherine Earnshaw? Why has she become a demonic, 
storm-driven ghost? The "real" etiological story of Wuthering Heights 
begins, as Lockwood learns from his "human fixture" Nelly Dean, 
with a random weakening of the fabric of ordinary human society. 
Once upon a time, somewhere in what mythically speaking qualifies 
as pre-history or what Eliade calls "illo tempore," there is/was a 
primordial family, the Earnshaws, who trace their lineage back at 
least as far as the paradigmatic Renaissance inscription "1500 
Hareton Earnshaw" over their "principal doorway." And one fine 
summer morning toward the end of the eighteenth century, the "old 
master" of the house decides to take a walking tour of sixty miles to 
Liverpool (chap. 4). His decision, like Lear's decision to divide his 
kingdom, is apparently quite arbitrary, one of those mystifying 
psychic donnees for which the fictional convention of "once upon a 
time" was devised. Perhaps it means, like Lear's action, that he is 
half-consciously beginning to prepare for death. In any case, his 
ritual questions to his two children — an older son and a younger 
daughter — and to their servant Nelly are equally stylized and arbi- 
trary, as are the children's answers. "What shall I bring you?" the 
old master asks, like the fisherman to whom the flounder gave three 
wishes. And the children reply, as convention dictates, by requesting 
their heart's desires. In other words, they reveal their true selves, just 
as a father contemplating his own ultimate absence from their lives 
might have hoped they would. 

Strangely enough, however, only the servant Nelly's heart's desire 
is sensible and conventional: she asks for (or, rather, accepts the 



264 How Are We Fai'n? Milton's Daughters 

promise of) a pocketful of apples and pears. Hindley, on the other 
hand, the son who is destined to be next master of the household, does 
not ask for a particularly masterful gift. His wish, indeed, seems 
frivolous in the context of the harsh world of the Heights. He asks for 
a fiddle, betraying both a secret, soft-hearted desire for culture and 
an almost decadent lack of virile purpose. Stranger still is Catherine's 
wish for a whip. "She could ride any horse in the stable," says Nelly, 
but in the fairy-tale context of this narrative that realistic explanation 
hardly seems to suffice, 83 for, symbolically, the small Catherine's 
longing for a whip seems like a powerless younger daughter's yearning 
for power. 

Of course, as we might expect from our experience of fairy tales, 
at least one of the children receives the desired boon. Catherine gets 
her whip. She gets it figuratively — in the form of a "gypsy brat" — 
rather than literally, but nevertheless "it" (both whip and brat) 
functions just as she must unconsciously have hoped it would, smash- 
ing her rival-brother's fiddle and making a desirable third among the 
children in the family so as to insulate her from the pressure of her 
brother's domination. (That there should always have been three 
children in the family is clear from the way other fairytale rituals of 
three are observed, and also from the fact that Heathcliffis given the 
name of a dead son, perhaps even the true oldest son, as if he were 
a reincarnation of the lost child.) 

Having received her deeply desired whip, Catherine now achieves, 
as Hillis Miller and Leo Bersani have noticed, an extraordinary 
fullness of being. 24 The phrase may seem pretentiously metaphysical 
(certainly critics like 0_. D. Leavis have objected to such phrases on 
those grounds) 25 but in discussing the early paradise from which 
Catherine and Heathcliff eventually fall we are trying to describe 
elusive psychic states, just as we would in discussing Wordsworth's 
visionary childhood, Frankenstein's youth before he "learned" that 
he was (the creator of) a monster, or even the prelapsarian sexuality 
of Milton's Adam and Eve. And so, like Freud who was driven to 
grope among such words as oceanic when he tried to explain the heaven 
that lies about us in our infancy, we are obliged to use the paradoxical 
and metaphorical language of mysticism : phrases like wholeness, fullness 
of being, and androgyny come inevitably to mind. 2 * All three, as we 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 265 

shall see, apply to Catherine, or more precisely to Catherine-Heath- 
cliff. 

In part Catherine's new wholeness results from a very practical 
shift in family dynamics. Heathcliff as a fantasy replacement of the 
dead oldest brother does in fact supplant Hindley in the old master's 
affections, and therefore he functions as a tool of the dispossessed 
younger sister whose "whip" he is. Specifically, he enables her for 
the first time to get possession of the kingdom of Wuthering Heights, 
which under her rule threatens to become, like Gondal, a queendom. 
In addition to this, however, Heathcliff's presence gives the girl a 
fullness of being that goes beyond power in household politics, 
because as Catherine's whip he is (and she herself recognizes this) 
an alternative self or double for her, a complementary addition to 
her being who fleshes out all her lacks the way a bandage might 
staunch a wound. Thus in her union with him she becomes, like 
Manfred in his union with his sister Astarte, a perfect androgyne. 
As devoid of sexual awareness as Adam and Eve were in the pre- 
lapsarian garden, she sleeps with her whip, her other half, every night 
in the primordial fashion of the countryside. Gifted with that in- 
nocent, unselfconscious sexual energy which Blake saw as eternal 
delight, she has "ways with her," according to Nelly, "such as I 
never saw a child take up before" (chap. 5). And if Heathcliff's is the 
body that does her will — strong, dark, proud, and a native speaker 
of "gibberish" rather than English — she herself is an "unfeminine" 
instance of transcendently vital spirit. For she is never docile, never 
submissive, never ladylike. On the contrary, her joy — and the 
Coleridgean word is not too strong — is in what Milton's Eve is 
never allowed: a tongue "always going — singing, laughing, and 
plaguing everybody who would not do the same," and "ready words : 
turning Joseph's religious curses into ridicule . . . and doing just what 
her father hated most" (chap. 5). 

Perverse as it may seem, this paradise into which Heathcliff's 
advent has transformed Wuthering Heights for the young Catherine 
is as authentic a fantasy for women as Milton's Eden was for men, 
though Milton's misogynistically cowed daughters have rarely had 
the revisionary courage to spell out so many of the terms of their 
dream. Still, that the historical process does yield moments when 



266 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

that feminist dream of wholeness has real consequences is another 
point Bronte wishes us to consider, just as she wishes to convey her 
rueful awareness that, given the prior strength of patriarchal mi- 
sogyny, those consequences may be painful as well as paradisal. 
Producing Heathcliff from beneath his greatcoat as if enacting a 
mock birth, old Mr. Earnshaw notes at once the equivocal nature 
of Catherine's whip: "You must e'en take it as a gift of God, though 
it's as dark almost as if it came from the devil" (chap. 4). His ambiva- 
lence is well-founded : strengthened by Heathcliff, Catherine becomes 
increasingly rebellious against the parodic patriarchal religion Joseph 
advocates, and thus, too, increasingly unmindful of her father's 
discipline. As she gains in rebellious energy, she becomes Satanically 
"as Gods" in her defiance of such socially constituted authority, and 
in the end, like a demonic Cordelia (that is, like Cordelia, Goneril, 
and Regan all in one) she has the last laugh at her father, answering 
his crucial dying question "Why canst thou not always be a good 
lass, Cathy?" with a defiantly honest question of her own: "Why 
cannot you always be a good man, Father?" (chap. 5) and then 
singing him, rather hostilely, "to sleep" — that is, to death. 

Catherine's heaven, in other words, is very much like the place 
such a representative gentleman as Lockwood would call hell, for 
it is associated (like the hell of King Lear) with an ascendent self- 
willed female who radiates what, as Blake observed, most people 
consider "diabolical" energy — the creative energy of Los and Satan, 
the life energy of fierce, raw, uncultivated being. 2 ' But the ambiguity 
Catherine's own father perceives in his "gift of God" to the girl is 
also manifested in the fact that even some of the authentically hellish 
qualities Lockwood found at Wuthering Heights on his first two 
visits, especially the qualities of "hate" (i.e. defiance) and "violence" 
(i.e. energy) , would have seemed to him to characterize the Wuthering 
Heights of Catherine's heavenly childhood. For Catherine, however, 
the defiance that might seem like hate was made possible by love 
(her oneness with Heathcliff) and the energy that seemed like 
violence was facilitated by the peace (the wholeness) of an undivided 
self. 

Nevertheless, her personal heaven is surrounded, like Milton's 
Eden, by threats from what she would define as "hell." If, for instance, 
she had in some part of herself hoped that her father's death would 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 267 

ease the stress of that shadowy patriarchal yoke which was the only 
cloud on her heaven's horizon, Catherine was mistaken. For para- 
doxically old Earnshaw's passing brings with it the end to Catherine's 
Edenic "half savage and hardy and free" girlhood. It brings about a 
divided world in which the once-androgynous child is to be "laid 
alone" for the first time. And most important it brings about the 
accession to power of Hindley, by the patriarchal laws of primogeni- 
ture the real heir and thus the new father who is to introduce into 
the novel the proximate causes of Catherine's (and Heathcliff's) fall 
and subsequent decline. 



Catherine's sojourn in the earthly paradise of childhood lasts for 
six years, according to C. P. Sanger's precisely worked-out chronology, 
but it takes Nelly Dean barely fifteen minutes to relate the episode.** 
Prelapsarian history, as Milton knew, is easy to summarize. Since 
happiness has few of the variations of despair, to be unfallen is to be 
static, whereas to fall is to enter the processes of time. Thus Nelly's 
account of Catherine's fall takes at least several hours, though it 
also covers six years. And as she describes it, that fall — or process 
of falling — begins with Hindley's marriage, an event associated for 
obvious reasons with the young man's inheritance of his father's 
power and position. 

It is odd that Hindley's marriage should precipitate Catherine out 
of her early heaven because that event installs an adult woman in 
the small Heights family circle for the first time since the death of 
Mrs. Earnshaw four years earlier, and as conventional (or even 
feminist) wisdom would have it, Catherine "needs" a mother-figure 
to look after her, especially now that she is on the verge of adolescence. 
But precisely because she and Heathcliff are twelve years old and 
growing up, the arrival of Frances is the worst thing that could 
happen to her. For Frances, as Nelly's narrative indicates, is a model 
young lady, a creature of a species Catherine, safely sequestered in 
her idiosyncratic Eden, has had as little chance of encountering as 
Eve had of meeting a talking serpent before the time came for her to 
fall. 

Of course, Frances is no serpent. On the contrary, light-footed and 
fresh-complexioned, she seems much more like a late eighteenth- 



268 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton's Daughters 

century model of the Victorian angei in the house, and certainly her 
effect upon Hindley has been both to subdue him and to make him 
more ethereal. "He had grown sparer, and lost his colour, and spoke 
and dressed quite differendy," Nelly notes (chap. 6) ; he even proposes 
to convert one room into a parlor, an amenity Wuthering Heights 
has never had. Hindley has in fact become a cultured man, so that 
in gaining a ladylike bride he has, as it were, gained the metaphorical 
riddle that was his heart's desire when he was a boy. 

It is no doubt inevitable that Hindley's fiddle and Catherine's whip 
cannot peaceably coexist. Certainly the early smashing of the fiddle 
by the "whip" hinted at such a problem, and so perhaps it would not 
be entirely frivolous to think of the troubles that now ensue for 
Catherine and Heathcliff as the fiddle's revenge. But even without 
pressing this conceit we can see that Hindley's angel/fiddle is a 
problematical representative of what is now introduced as the 
"heavenly" realm of culture. For one thing, her ladylike sweetness 
is only skin-deep. Leo Bersani remarks that the distinction between 
the children at the Heights and those at the Grange is the difference 
between "aggressively selfish children" and "whiningly selfish child- 
ren."** If this is so, Frances foreshadows the children at the Grange 
— the children of genteel culture — since "her affection [toward 
Catherine] tired very soon [and] she grew peevish," at which point 
the now gentlemanly Hindley becomes "tyrannical" in just the way 
his position as the household's new paterfamilias encourages him to be. 
His tyranny consists, among other things, in his attempt to impose 
what Blake would call a Urizenic heavenly order at the heretofore 
anti-hierarchical Heights. The servants Nelly and Joseph, he decrees, 
must know their place — which is "the back kitchen" — and Heath- 
cliff, because he is socially nobody, must be exiled from culture: 
deprived of "the instruction of the curate" and cast out into "the 
fields" (chap. 6). 

Frances's peevishness, however, is not just a sign that her ladylike 
ways are inimical to the prelapsarian world of Catherine's childhood; 
it is also a sign that, as the twelve-year-old girl must perceive it, to 
be a lady is to be diseased. As Nelly hints, Frances is tubercular, and 
any mention of death causes her to act "half silly," as if in some part 
of herself she knows she is doomed, or as if she is already half a ghost. 
And she is. As a metaphor, Frances's tuberculosis means that she 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 269 

is in an advanced state of just that social "consumption" which will 
eventually kill Catherine, too, so that the thin and silly bride functions 
for the younger girl as a sort of premonition or ghost of what she 
herself will become. 

But of course the social disease of ladyhood, with its attendant 
silliness or madness, is only one of the threats Frances incarnates for 
twelve-year-old Catherine. Another, perhaps even more sinister 
because harder to confront, is associated with the fact that though 
Catherine may well need a mother — in the sense in which Eve or 
Mary Shelley's monster needed a mother/model — Frances does not 
and cannot function as a good mother for her. The original Earnshaws 
were shadowy but mythically grand, like the primordial "true" 
parents of fairy tales (or like most parents seen through the eyes of 
preadolescent children). Hindley and Frances, on the other hand, 
the new Earnshaws, are troublesomely real though as oppressive as 
the step-parents in fairy tales. 80 To say that they are in some way like 
step-parents, however, is to say that they seem to Catherine like 
transformed or alien parents, and since this is as much a function of 
her own vision as of the older couple's behavior, we must assume that 
it has something to do with the changes wrought by the girl's entrance 
into adolescence. 

Why do parents begin to seem like step-parents when their children 
reach puberty? The ubiquitousness of step-parents in fairy tales 
dealing with the crises of adolescence suggests that the phenomenon 
is both deepseated and widespread. One explanation — and the one 
that surely accounts for Catherine Earnshaw's experience — is that 
when the child gets old enough to become conscious of her parents as 
sexual beings they really do begin to seem like fiercer, perhaps even 
(as in the case of Hindley and Frances) younger versions of their 
"original" selves. Certainly they begin to be more threatening (that 
is, more "peevish" and "tyrannical") if only because the child's 
own sexual awakening disturbs them almost as much as their sexuality, 
now truly comprehended, bothers the child. Thus the crucial passage 
from Catherine's diary which Lockwood reads even before Nelly 
begins her narration is concerned not just with Joseph's pious 
oppressions but with the cause of those puritanical onslaughts, the 
fact that she and Heathcliffmust shiver in the garret because "Hindley 
and his wife [are basking] downstairs before a comfortable fire . . . 



270 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

kissing and talking nonsense by the hour — foolish palaver we should 
be ashamed of." Catherine's defensiveness is clear. She (and Heath- 
cliff) are troubled by the billing and cooing of her "step-parents" 
because she understands, perhaps for the first time, the sexual nature 
of what a minute later she calls Hindley's "paradise on the hearth" 
and — worse — understands its relevance to her. 

Flung into the kitchen, "where Joseph asseverated, 'owd Nick' 
would fetch us," Catherine and Heathcliff each seek "a separate 
nook to await his advent." For Catherinc-and-Heathcliff — that is, 
Catherine and Catherine, or Catherine and her whip — have already 
been separated from each other, not just by tyrannical Hindley, the 
dots produced by time's machine, but by the emergence of Catherine's 
own sexuality, with all the terrors which attend that phenomenon 
in a puritanical and patriarchal society. And just as peevish Frances 
incarnates the social illness of ladyhood, so also she quite literally 
embodies the fearful as well as the frivolous consequences of sexuality. 
Her foolish if paradisaical palaver on the hearth, after all, leads 
straight to the death her earlier ghostliness and silliness had predicted. 
Her sexuality's destructiveness was even implied by the minor but 
vicious acts of injustice with which it was associated — arbitrarily 
pulling Heathcliff's hair, for instance — but the sex-death equation, 
with which Milton and Mary Shelley were also concerned, really 
surfaces when Frances's and Hindley's son, Hareton, is born. At 
that time, Kenneth, the lugubrious physician who functions like a 
medical Greek chorus throughout Wulhering Heights, informs Hindley 
that the winter will "probably finish" Frances. 

To Catherine, however, it must appear that the murderous agent 
is not winter but sex, for as she is beginning to learn, the Miltonic 
testaments of her world have told woman that "thy sorrow I will 
greatly multiply /By thy Conception ..." {PL 10. 192-95) and the 
maternal image of Sin birthing Death reinforces this point. That 
Frances's decline and death accompany Catherine's fall is metaphy- 
sically appropriate, therefore. And it is dramatically appropriate as 
well, for Frances's fate foreshadows the catastrophes which will follow 
Catherine's fall into sexuality just as surely as the appearance of Sin 
and Death on earth followed Eve's fall. That Frances's death also, 
incidentally, yields Hareton — the truest scion of the Earnshaw clan — 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte'' s Bible of Hell 271 

is also profoundly appropriate. For Hareton is, after all, a resurrected 
version of the original patriarch whose name is written over the great 
main door of the house, amid a "wilderness of shameless little boys." 
Thus his birth marks the beginning of the historical as well as the 
psychological decline and fall of that Satanic female principle which 
has temporarily usurped his "rightful" place at Wuthering Heights. 



Catherine's fall, however, is caused by a patriarchal past and 
present, besides being associated with a patriarchal future. It is 
significant, then, that her problems begin — violently enough — when 
she literally falls down and is bitten by a male bulldog, a sort of 
guard/god from Thrushcross Grange. Though many readers overlook 
this point, Catherine does not go to the Grange when she is twelve 
years old. On the contrary, the Grange seizes her and "holds [her] 
fast," a metaphoric action which emphasizes the turbulent and in- 
exorable nature of the psychosexual rites de passage Wuthering Heights 
describes, just as the ferociously masculine bull/dog — as a symbolic 
representative of Thrushcross Grange — contrasts strikingly with the 
ascendancy at the Heights of the hellish female bitch goddess alter- 
nately referred to as "Madam" and "Juno." 31 

Realistically speaking, Catherine and Heathcliffhave been driven 
in the direction of Thrushcross Grange by their own desire to escape 
not only the pietistic tortures Joseph inflicts but also, more urgently, 
just that sexual awareness irritatingly imposed by Hindley's romantic 
paradise. Neither sexuality nor its consequences can be evaded, 
however, and the farther the children run the closer they come to 
the very fate they secretly wish to avoid. Racing "from the top of the 
Heights to the park without stopping," they plunge from the periphery 
of Hindley's paradise (which was transforming their heaven into a 
hell) to the boundaries of a place that at first seems authentically 
heavenly, a place full of light and softness and color, a "splendid 
place carpeted with crimson . . . and [with] a pure white ceiling 
bordered by gold, a shower of glass-drops hanging in silver chains 
from the centre, and shimmering with little soft tapers" (chap. 6). 
Looking in the window, the outcasts speculate that if they were inside 
such a room "we should have thought ourselves in heaven !" From the 



272 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

outside, at least, the Lintons' elegant haven appears paradisaical. 
But once the children have experienced its Urizenic interior, they 
know that in their terms this heaven is hell. 

Because the first emissary of this heaven who greets them is the 
bulldog Skulker, a sort of hellhound posing as a hound of heaven, 
the wound this almost totemic animal inflicts upon Catherine is as 
symbolically suggestive as his role in the girl's forced passage from 
Wuthering Heights to Thrushcross Grange. Barefoot, as if to em- 
phasize her "wild child" innocence, Catherine is exceptionally 
vulnerable, as a wild child must inevitably be, and when the dog is 
"throttled off, his huge, purple tongue hanging half a foot out of his 
mouth ... his pendant lips [are] streaming with bloody slaver." 
"Look . . . how her foot bleeds," Edgar Linton exclaims, and "She 
may be lamed for life," his mother anxiously notes (chap. 6) . Obvious- 
ly such bleeding has sexual connotations, especially when it occurs in 
a pubescent girl. Crippling injuries to the feet are equally resonant, 
moreover, almost always signifying symbolic castration, as in the 
stories of Oedipus, Achilles, and the Fisher King. Additionally, it 
hardly needs to be noted that Skulker's equipment for aggression — 
his huge purple tongue and pendant lips, for instance — sounds 
extraordinarily phallic. In a Freudian sense, then, the imagery of 
this brief but violent episode hints that Catherine has been simul- 
taneously catapulted into adult female sexuality and castrated. 

How can a girl "become a woman" and be castrated (that is, 
desexed) at the same time? Considering how Freudian its icono- 
graphic assumptions are, the question is disingenuous, for not only 
in Freud's terms but in feminist terms, as Elizabeth Janeway and 
Juliet Mitchell have both observed, femaleness — implying "penis 
envy" — quite reasonably means castration. "No woman has been 
deprived of a penis; she never had one to begin with," Janeway notes, 
commenting on Freud's crucial "Female Sexuality" (1931). 

But she has been deprived of something else that men enjoy : 
namely, autonomy, freedom, and the power to control her 
destiny. By insisting, falsely, on female deprivation of the male 
organ, Freud is pointing to an actual deprivation and one of 
which he was clearly aware. In Freud's time the advantages 
enjoyed by the male sex over the inferior female were, of course, 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 273 

even greater than at present, and they were also accepted to a 
much larger extent, as being inevitable, inescapable. Women 
were evident social castrates, and the mudlation of their poten- 
tiality as achieving human creatures was quite analogous to 
the physical wound. 32 

But if such things were true in Freud's time, they were even truer 
in Emily Bronte's. And certainly the hypothesis that Catherine 
Earnshaw has become in some sense a "social castrate," that she has 
been "lamed for life," is borne out by her treatment at Thrushcross 
Grange — and by the treatment of her alter ego, HeathclifT. For, 
assuming that she is a "young lady," the entire Linton household 
cossets the wounded (but still healthy) girl as if she were truly an 
invalid. Indeed, feeding her their alien rich food — negus and cakes 
from their own table — washing her feet, combing her hair, dressing 
her in "enormous slippers," and wheeling her about like a doll, they 
seem to be enacting some sinister ritual of inidation, the sort of ritual 
that has traditionally weakened mythic heroines from Persephone 
to Snow White. And because he is "a little Lascar, or an American 
or Spanish castaway," the Lintons banish HeathclirT from their 
parlor, thereby separating Catherine from the lover/brother whom 
she herself defines as her strongest and most necessary "self." For 
five weeks now, she will be at the mercy of the Grange's heavenly 
gentility. 

To say that Thrushcross Grange is genteel or cultured and that it 
therefore seems "heavenly" is to say, of course, that it is the opposite 
of Wuthering Heights. And certainly at every point the two houses 
are opposed to each other, as if each in its self-assertion must absolutely 
deny the other's being. Like Milton and Blake, Emily Bronte thought 
in polarities. Thus, where Wuthering Heights is essentially a great 
parjorless room built around a huge central hearth, a furnace of 
dark energy like the fire of Los, Thrushcross Grange has a parlor 
notable not for heat but for light, for "a pure white ceiling bordered 
by gold" with "a shower of glass-drops" in the center that seems to 
parody the "sovran vital Lamp" (PL 3. 22) which illuminates Milton's 
heaven of Right Reason. Where Wuthering Heights, moreover, is 
close to being naked or "raw" in Levi-Strauss' sense — its floors 
uncarpeted, most of its inhabitants barely literate, even the meat on 



274 How Are We FaVn ? Milton's Daughters 

its shelves open to inspection — Thrushcross Grange is clothed and 
"cooked": carpeted in crimson, bookish, feeding on cakes and tea 
and negus. 3 * It follows from this, then, that where Wuthering Heights 
is functional, even its dogs working sheepdogs or hunters, Thrushcross 
Grange (though guarded by bulldogs) appears to be decorative or 
aesthetic, the home of lapdogs as well as ladies. And finally, therefore, 
Wuthering Heights in its stripped functional rawness is essentially 
anti-hierarchical and egalitarian as the aspirations of Eve and Satan, 
while Thrushcross Grange reproduces the hierarchical chain of being 
that Western culture traditionally proposes as heaven's decree. 

For all these reasons, Catherine Earnshaw, together with her 
whip Heathcliff, has at Wuthering Heights what Emily Dickinson 
would call a "Barefoot-Rank." M But at Thrushcross Grange, clad 
first in enormous, crippling slippers and later in "a long cloth habit 
which she [is] obliged to hold up with both hands" (chap. 7) in 
order to walk, she seems on the verge of becoming, again in Dickinson's 
words, a "Lady [who] dare not lift her Veil / For fear it be dispelled" 
(J. 421) For in comparison to Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross 
Grange is, finally, the home of concealment and doubleness, a 
place where, as we shall see, reflections are separated from their 
owners like souls from bodies, so that the lady in anxiety "peers 
beyond her mesh — /And wishes — and denies — /Lest Interview — 
annul a want /That Image — satisfies." And it is here, therefore, at 
heaven's mercy, that Catherine Earnshaw learns "to adopt a double 
character without exactly intending to deceive anyone" (chap. 8). 

In fact, for Catherine Earnshaw, Thrushcross Grange in those five 
fatal weeks becomes a Palace of Instruction, as Bronte ironically 
called the equivocal schools of life where her adolescent Gondals 
were often incarcerated. But rather than learning, like A. G. A. and 
her cohorts, to rule a powerful nation, Catherine must learn to rule 
herself, or so the Lintons and her brother decree. She must learn to 
repress her own impulses, must girdle her own energies with the iron 
stays of "reason." Having fallen into the decorous "heaven" of 
femaleness, Catherine must become a lady. And just as her entrance 
into the world of Thrushcross Grange was forced and violent, so this 
process by which she is obliged to accommodate herself to that world 
is violent and painful, an unsentimental education recorded by a 
practiced, almost sadistically accurate observer. For the young 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 275 

Gondals, too, had had a difficult time of it in their Palace of Instruc- 
tion : far from being wonderful Golden Rule days, their school days 
were spent mostly in dungeons and torture cells, where their elders 
starved them into submission or self-knowledge. 

That education for Emily Bronte is almost always fearful, even 
agonizing, may reflect the Brontes' own traumatic experiences at 
the Clergy Daughters School and elsewhere. 85 But it may also reflect 
in a more general way the repressiveness with which the nineteenth 
century educated all its young ladies, strapping them to backboards 
and forcing them to work for hours at didactic samplers until the 
more high-spirited girls — the Catherine Earnshaws and Catherine 
Morlands — must have felt, like the inhabitants of Kafka's penal 
colony, that the morals and maxims of patriarchy were being em- 
broidered on their own skins. To mention Catherine Morland here 
is not to digress. As we have seen, Austen did not subject her heroine 
to education as a gothic/Gondalian torture, except parodically. Yet 
even Austen's parody suggests that for a girl like Catherine Morland 
the school of life inevitably inspires an almost instinctive fear, just 
as it would for A. G. A. "Heavenly" Northanger Abbey may somehow 
conceal a prison cell, Catherine suspects, and she develops this notion 
by sensing (as Henry Tilney cannot) that the female romances she 
is reading are in some sense the disguised histories of her own life. 

In Catherine Earnshaw's case, these points are made even more 
subtly than in the Gondal poems or in Northanger Abbey, for Catherine's 
education in doubleness, in ladylike decorum meaning also ladylike 
deceit, is marked by an actual doubling or fragmentation of her 
personality. Thus though it is ostensibly Catherine who is being 
educated, it is Heathcliff — her rebellious alter ego, her whip, her 
id — who is exiled to a prison cell, as if to implement delicate Isabella 
Linton's first horrified reacdon to him: "Frightful thing! Put him in 
the cellar" (chap. 6). Not in the cellar but in the garret, Heathcliff 
is locked up and, significantly, starved, while Catherine, daintily 
"cutting up the wing of a goose," practices table manners below. 
Even more significantly, however, she too is finally unable to eat 
her dinner and retreats under the table cloth to weep for her im- 
prisoned playmate. To Catherine, Heathcliff is "more myself than 
I am," as she later famously tells Nelly, and so his literal starvation 
is symbolic of her more terrible because more dangerous spiritual 



276 How Are We FaVn? Milton's Daughters 

starvation, just as her literal wound at Thrushcross Grange is also a 
metaphorical deathblow to his health and power. For divided from 
each other, the once androgynous Heathcliff-and-Catherine are now 
conquered by the concerted forces of patriarchy, the Lintons of 
Thrushcross Grange acting together with Hindley and Frances, their 
emissaries at the Heights. 

It is, appropriately enough, during this period, that Frances gives 
birth to Hareton, the new patriarch-to-be, and dies, having fulfilled 
her painful function in the book and in the world. During this period, 
too, Catherine's education in ladylike self-denial causes her dutifully 
to deny her self and decide to marry Edgar. For when she says of 
Heathcliff that "he's more myself than I am," she means that as 
her exiled self the nameless "gipsy" really does preserve in his body 
more of her original being than she retains : even in his deprivation 
he seems whole and sure, while she is now entirely absorbed in the 
ladylike wishing and denying Dickinson's poem describes. Thus, 
too, it is during this period of loss and transidon that Catherine 
obsessively inscribes on her windowsill the crucial writing Lockwood 
finds, wriung which announces from the first Emily Bronte's central 
concern with identity: "a name repeated in all kinds of characters, 
large and small — Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to 
Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton" (chap. 3). 
In the light of this repeated and varied name it is no wonder, finally, 
that Catherine knows Heathcliff is "more myself than I am," for 
he has only a single name, while she has so many that she may be 
said in a sense to have none. Just as triumphant self-discovery is the 
ultimate goal of the male Bildungsroman, anxious self-denial, Bronte 
suggests, is the ultimate product of a female education. What 
Catherine, or any girl, must learn is that she does not know her own 
name, and therefore cannot know either who she is or whom she is 
destined to be. 

It has often been argued that Catherine's anxiety and uncertainty 
about her own idendty represents a moral failing, a fatal flaw in her 
character which leads to her inability to choose between Edgar and 
Heathcliff. Heathcliff 's reproachful "Why did you betray your own 
heart, Cathy?" (chap. 15) represents a Blakeian form of this moral 
cridcism, a contemptuous suggestion that "those who restrain desire 
do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained." 36 The more 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 277 

vulgar and commonsensical attack of the Leavisites, on the other 
hand — the censorious notion that "maturity" means being strong 
enough to choose not to have your cake and eat it too — represents 
what Mark Kinkead- Weeks calls "the view from the Grange." 3 ' 
To talk of morality in connection with Catherine's fall — and specifi- 
cally in connection with her self-deceptive decision to marry Edgar — 
seems pointless, however, for morality only becomes a relevant term 
where there are meaningful choices. 

As we have seen, Catherine has no meaningful choices. Driven 
from Wuthering Heights to Thrushcross Grange by her brother's 
marriage, seized by Thrushcross Grange and held fast in the jaws of 
reason, education, decorum, she cannot do otherwise than as she 
does, must marry Edgar because there is no one else for her to marry 
and a lady must marry. Indeed, her self-justifying description of her 
love for Edgar — "I love the ground under his feet, and the air over 
his head, and everything he touches, and every word he says" (chap. 
9) — is a bitter parody of a genteel romantic declaration which 
shows how effective her education has been in indoctrinating her 
with the literary romanticism deemed suitable for young ladies, the 
swooning "femininity" that identifies all energies with the charisma 
of fathers/lovers/husbands. Her concomitant explanation that it 
would "degrade" her to marry HeathclifT is an equally inevitable 
product of her education, for her fall into ladyhood has been accom- 
panied by Heathcliff's reduction to an equivalent position of female 
powerlessness, and Catherine has learned, correctly, that if it is 
degrading to be a woman it is even more degrading to be like a 
woman. Just as Milton's Eve, therefore, being already fallen, had 
no meaningful choice despite Milton's best efforts to prove otherwise, 
so Catherine has no real choice. Given the patriarchal nature of 
culture, women must fall — that is, they are already fallen because 
doomed to fall. 

In the shadow of this point, however, moral censorship is merely 
redundant, a sort of interrogative restatement of the novel's central 
fact. Heathcliff's Blakeian reproach is equally superfluous, except 
insofar as it is not moral but etiological, a question one part of 
Catherine asks another, like her later passionate "Why am I so 
changed?" For as Catherine herself perceives, social and biological 
forces have fiercely combined against her. God as — in W. H. Auden's 



278 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

words — a "Victorian papa" has hurled her from the equivocal 
natural paradise she calls "heaven" and He calls "hell" into His 
idea of "heaven" where she will break her heart with weeping to 
come back to the Heights. Her speculative, tentative "mad" speech 
to Nelly captures, finally, both the urgency and the inexorability of 
her fall. "Supposing at twelve years old, I had been wrenched from 
the Heights . . . and my all in all, as HeathclifFwas at that time, and 
been converted at a stroke into Mrs. Linton, the lady of Thrushcross 
Grange, and the wife of a stranger: an exile, and outcast, thence- 
forth, from what had been my world." In terms of the psychodramatic 
action of Wuthering Heights, only Catherine's use of the word supposing 
is here a rhetorical strategy; the rest of her speech is absolutely 
accurate, and places her subsequent actions beyond good and evil, 
just as it suggests, in yet another Blakeian reversal of customary 
terms, that her madness may really be sanity. 



Catherine Earnshaw Linton's decline follows Catherine Earnshaw's 
fall. Slow at first, it is eventually as rapid, sickening, and deadly as 
the course of Bronte's own consumption was to be. And the long 
slide toward death of the body begins with what appears to be an 
irreversible death of the soul — with Catherine's fatalistic acceptance 
of Edgar's offer and her consequent self-imprisonment in the role of 
"Mrs. Linton, the lady of Thrushcross Grange." It is, of course, her 
announcement of this decision to Nelly, overheard by HeathclifF, 
which leads to HeathclifT's self-exile from the Heights and thus 
definitively to Catherine's psychic fragmentation. And significantly, 
her response to the departure of her true self is a lapse into illness 
which both signals the beginning of her decline and foreshadows 
its mortal end. Her words to Nelly the morning after HeathclifT's 
departure are therefore symbolically as well as dramatically resonant : 
"Shut the window, Nelly, I'm starving!" (chap. 9). 

As Dorothy van Ghent has shown, windows in Wuthering Heights 
consistently represent openings into possibility, apertures through 
which subversive otherness can enter, or wounds out of which 
respectability can escape like flowing blood. 3 * It is, after all, on the 
window ledge that Lockwood finds Catherine's different names 
obsessively inscribed, as if the girl had been trying to decide which 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 279 

self to let in the window or in which direction she ought to fly after 
making her own escape down the branches of the neighboring pine. 
It is through the same window that the ghost of Catherine Linton 
extends her icy fingers to the horrified visitor. And it is a window at 
the Grange that Catherine, in her "madness," begs Nelly to open 
so that she can have one breath of the wind that "comes straight 
down the moor" (chap. 1 2) . "Open the window again wide, fasten it 
open!" she cries, then rises and, predicting herown death, seems 
almost ready to start on her journey homeward up the moor. ("I 
could not trust her alone by the gaping lattice," Nelly comments 
wisely.) But besides expressing a general wish to escape from "this 
shattered prison" of her body, her marriage, her self, her life, 
Catherine's desire now to open the window refers specifically back 
to that moment three years earlier when she had chosen instead to 
close it, chosen to inflict on herself the imprisonment and starvation 
that as part of her education had been inflicted on her double, 
Heathcliff. 

Imprisonment leads to madness, solipsism, paralysis, as Byron's 
Prisoner of Chillon, some of Bronte's Gondal poems, and countless 
other gothic and neo-gothic tales suggest. Starvation — both in the 
modern sense of malnutrition and the archaic Miltonic sense of 
freezing ("to starve in ice") — leads to weakness, immobility, death. 
During her decline, starting with both starvation and imprisonment, 
Catherine passes through all these grim stages of mental and physical 
decay. At first she seems (to Nelly anyway) merely somewhat "head- 
strong." Powerless without her whip, keenly conscious that she has 
lost the autonomy of her hardy and free girlhood, she gets her way 
by indulging in tantrums, wheedling, manipulating, so that Nelly's 
optimistic belief that she and Edgar "were really in possession of a 
deep and growing happiness" contrasts ironically with the house- 
keeper's simultaneous admission that Catherine "was never subject 
to depression of spirits before" the three interlocking events of 
HeathclifT's departure, her "perilous illness," and her marriage 
(chap. 10). But Heathcliff's mysterious reappearance six months after 
her wedding intensifies rather than cures her symptoms. For his 
return does not in any way suggest a healing of the wound of female- 
ness that was inflicted at puberty. Instead, it signals the beginning 
of "madness," a sort of feverish infection of the wound. Catherine's 



280 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

marriage to Edgar has now inexorably locked her into a social system 
that denies her autonomy, and thus, as psychic symbolism, Heath- 
cliff's return represents the return of her true self's desires without 
the rebirth of her former powers. And desire without power, as Freud 
and Blake both knew, inevitably engenders disease. 

If we understand all the action that takes place at Thrushcross 
Grange between Edgar, Catherine, and Heathcliff from the moment 
of Heathcliff's reappearance until the time of Catherine's death 
to be ultimately psychodramatic, a grotesque playing out of 
Catherine's emotional fragmentation on a "real" stage, then further 
discussion of her sometimes genteelly Victorian, sometimes fiercely 
Byronic decline becomes almost unnecessary, its meaning is so 
obvious. Edgar's autocratic hostility to Heathcliff — that is, to 
Catherine's desirous self, her independent will — manifests itself first 
in his attempt to have her entertain the returned "gipsy" or "plough- 
boy" in the kitchen because he doesn't belong in the parlor. But soon 
Edgar's hatred results in a determination to expel Healthcliff entirely 
from his house because he fears the effects of this demonic intruder, 
with all he signifies, not only upon his wife but upon his sister. His 
fear is justified because, as we shall see, the Satanic rebellion Heath- 
cliff introduces into the parlors of "heaven" contains the germ of a 
terrible dis-ease with patriarchy that causes women like Catherine 
and Isabella to try to escape their imprisonment in roles and houses 
by running away, by starving themselves, and finally by dying. 

Because Edgar is so often described as "soft," "weak," slim, fair- 
haired, even effeminate-looking, the specifically patriarchal nature 
of his feelings toward Heathcliff may not be immediately evident. 
Certainly many readers have been misled by his almost stylized 
angelic qualities to suppose that the rougher, darker Heathcliff 
incarnates masculinity in contrast to Linton's effeminacy. The 
returned Heathcliff, Nelly says, "had grown a tall, athletic, well- 
formed man, beside whom my master seemed quite slender and 
youthlike. His upright carriage suggested the idea of his having been 
in the army" (chap. 10). She even seems to acquiesce in his superior 
maleness. But her constant, reflexive use of the phrase "my master" for 
Edgar tells us otherwise, as do some of her other expressions. At this 
point in the novel, anyway, Heathcliff is always merely "Heathcliff" 
while Edgar is variously "Mr. Linton," "my master," "Mr. Edgar," 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 281 

and "the master," all phrases conveying the power and status he has 
independent of his physical strength. 

In fact, as Milton also did, Emily Bronte demonstrates that the 
power of the patriarch, Edgar's power, begins with words, for heaven 
is populated by "spirits Masculine," and as above, so below. Edgar 
does not need a strong, conventionally masculine body, because his 
mastery is contained in books, wills, testaments, leases, titles, rent- 
rolls, documents, languages, all the paraphernalia by which patri- 
archal culture is transmitted from one generation to the next. Indeed, 
even without Nelly's designation of him as "the master," his notable 
bookishness would define him as a patriarch, for he rules his house 
from his library as if to parody that male education in Latin and 
Greek, privilege and prerogative, which so infuriated Milton's 
daughters. 38 As a figure in the psychodrama of Catherine's decline, 
then, he incarnates the. education in young ladyhood that has 
commanded her to learn her "place." In Freudian terms he would 
no doubt be described as her superego, the internalized guardian of 
morality and culture, with Heathcliff, his opposite, functioning as 
her childish and desirous id. 

But at the same time, despite Edgar's superegoistic qualities, Emily 
Bronte shows that his patriarchal rule, like Thrushcross Grange 
itself, is based on physical as well as spiritual violence. For her, as 
for Blake, heaven kills. Thus, at a word from Thrushcross Grange, 
Skulker is let loose, and Edgar's magistrate father cries "What prey, 
Robert?" to his manservant, explaining that he fears thieves because 
"yesterday was my rent day." Similarly, Edgar, having decided 
that he has "humored" Catherine long enough, calls for two strong 
men servants to support his authority and descends into the kitchen 
to evict Heathcliff. The patriarch, Bronte notes, needs words, not 
muscles, and Heathcliff 's derisive language paradoxically suggests 
understanding of the true male power Edgar's "soft" exterior con- 
ceals: "Cathy, this lamb of yours threatens like a bull!" (chap. 11). 
Even more significant, perhaps, is the fact that when Catherine 
locks Edgar in alone with her and Heathcliff — once more imprisoning 
herself while ostensibly imprisoning the hated master — this appar- 
ently effeminate, "milk-blooded coward" frees himself by striking 
Heathcliff a breathtaking blow on the throat "that would have 
levelled a slighter man." 



282 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

Edgar's victory once again recapitulates that earlier victory of 
Thrushcross Grange over Wuthering Heights which also meant the 
victory of a Urizenic "heaven" over a delightful and energetic "hell." 
At the same time, it seals Catherine's doom, locking her into her 
downward spiral of self-starvation. And in doing this it finally 
explains what is perhaps Nelly's most puzzling remark about the 
relationship between Edgar and Catherine. In chapter 8, noting 
that the love-struck sixteen-year-old Edgar is "doomed, and flies to 
his fate," the housekeeper sardonically declares that "the soft thing 
[Edgar] . . . possessed the power to depart [from Catherine] as much 
as a cat possesses the power to leave a mouse half killed or a bird 
half eaten." At that point in the novel her metaphor seems odd. 
Is not headstrong Catherine the hungry cat, and "soft" Edgar the 
half-eaten mouse? But in fact, as we now see, Edgar all along repre- 
sented the devouring force that will gnaw and worry Catherine to 
death, consuming flesh and spirit together. For having fallen into 
"heaven," she has ultimately — to quote Sylvia Plath — "fallen/ Into 
the stomach of indifference," a social physiology that urgently 
needs her not so much for herself as for her function. 40 

When we note the significance of such imagery of devouring, as 
well as the all-pervasive motif of self-starvation in Wuthering Heights, 
the kitchen setting of this crucial confrontadon between Edgar and 
Heathcliff begins to seem more than coincidental. In any case, the 
episode is followed closely by what C. P. Sanger calls Catherine's 
"hunger strike" and by her famous mad scene. 41 Another line of 
Plath's describes the feelings of self-lessness that seem to accompany 
Catherine's realization that she has been reduced to a role, a funcdon, 
a sort of walking costume: "I have no face, I have wanted to efface 
myself." 42 For the weakening of Catherine's grasp on the world is 
most specifically shown by her inability to recognize her own face 
in the mirror during the mad scene. Explaining to Nelly that she 
is not mad, she notes that if she were "I should believe you really 
were [a] withered hag, and I should think I was under Penistone 
Crag; and I'm conscious it's night and there are two candles on the 
table making the black press shine like jet." Then she adds, "It does 
appear odd — I see a face in it" (chap. 12). But of course, ironically, 
there is no "black press" in the room, only a mirror in which Catherine 
sees and repudiates her own image. Her fragmentation has now gone 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 283 

so far beyond the psychic split betokened by her division from 
Heathcliff that body and image (or body and soul) have separated. 

Q. D. Leavis would have us believe that his apparently gothic 
episode, with its allusion to "dark superstitions about premonitions 
of death, about ghosts and primitive beliefs about the soul ... is a 
proof of [Emily Bronte's] immaturity at the time of the original 
conception of Wuthering Heights." Leo Bersani, on the other hand, 
suggests that the scene hints at "the danger of being haunted by 
alien versions of the self."** In a sense, however, the image Catherine 
sees in the mirror is neither gothic nor alien — though she is alienated 
from it — but hideously familiar, and further proof that her madness 
may really equal sanity. Catherine sees in the mirror an image of 
who and what she has really become in the world's terms: "Mrs. 
Linton, the lady of Thrushcross Grange." And oddly enough, this 
image appears to be stored like an article of clothing, a trousseau- 
treasure, or again in Plath's words "a featureless, fine /Jew linen," 44 
in one of the cupboards of childhood, the black press from her old 
room at the Heights. 

Because of this connection with childhood, part of the horror of 
Catherine's vision comes from the question it suggests: was the 
costume/face always there, waiting in a corner of the little girl's 
wardrobe? But to ask this question is to ask again, as Frankenstein 
does, whether Eve was created fallen, whether women are not 
Education's but "Nature's fools," doomed from the start to be 
exiles and outcasts despite their illusion that they are hardy and free. 
When Milton's Eve is for her own good led away from her own 
image by a superegoistic divine voice which tells her that "What 
there thou sees fair creature is thyself" — merely thyself — does she 
not in a sense determine Catherine Earnshaw's fall? When, substi- 
tuting Adam's superior image for her own, she concedes that female 
"beauty is excell'd by manly grace /And wisdom" {PL 4. 490-91) 
does not her "sane" submission outline the contours of Catherine 
Earnshaw's rebelliously Blakeian madness? Such questions are only 
implicit in Catherine's mad mirror vision of herself, but it is im- 
portant to see that they are implied. Once again, where Shelley 
clarifies Milton, showing the monster's dutiful disgust with "his" 
own self-image, Bronte repudiates him, showing how his teachings 
have doomed her protagonist to what dutiful Nelly considers an 



284 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

insane search for her lost true self. "I'm sure I should be myself were 
I once more among the heather on those hills," Catherine exclaims, 
meaning that only a journey back into the androgynous wholeness 
of childhood could heal the wound her mirror-image symbolizes, 
the fragmentation that began when she was separated from heather 
and Heathcliff, and "laid alone" in the first fateful enclosure of her 
oak-panelled bed. For the mirror-image is one more symbol of the 
cell in which Catherine has been imprisoned by herself and by society. 

To escape from the horrible mirror-enclosure, then, might be to 
escape from all domestic enclosures, or to begin to try to escape. 
It is significant that in her madness Catherine tears at her pillow 
with her teeth, begs Nelly to open the window, and seems "to find 
childish diversion in pulling the feathers from the rents she [has] 
just made" (chap. 12). Liberating feathers from the prison where 
they had been reduced to objects of social utility, she imagines them 
reborn as the birds they once were, whole and free, and pictures 
them "wheeling over our heads in the middle of the moor," trying 
to get back to their nests. A moment later, standing by the window 
"careless of the frosty air," she imagines her own trip back across 
the moor to Wuthering Heights, noting that "it's a rough journey, 
and a sad heart to travel it ; and we must pass by Gimmerton Kirk 
to go that journey! . . . But Heathcliff, if I dare you now, will you 
venture? ... I won't rest till you are with me. I never will !" (chap. 12) 
For a "fallen" woman, trapped in the distorting mirrors of patriarchy, 
the journey into death is the only way out, Bronte suggests, and the 
Liebestod is not (as it would be for a male artist, like Keats or Wagner) 
a mystical but a practical solution. In the presence of death, after all, 
"The mirrors are sheeted," to quote Plath yet again. 4 * 

The masochism of this surrender to what A. Alvarez has called 
the "savage god" of suicide is plain, not only from Catherine's own 
words and actions but also from the many thematic parallels between 
her speeches and Plath's poems. 4 * But of course, taken together, 
self-starvation or anorexia nervosa, masochism, and suicide form a 
complex of psychoneurotic symptoms that is almost classically asso- 
ciated with female feelings of powerlessness and rage. Certainly the 
"hunger strike" is a traditional tool of the powerless, as the history 
of the feminist movement (and many other movements of oppressed 
peoples) will attest. Anorexia nervosa, moreover, is a sort of mad 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 285 

corollary of the self-starvation that may be a sane strategy for survival. 
Clinically associated with "a distorted concept of body size" — like 
Catherine Earnshaw's alienated/familiar image in the mirror — it is 
fed by the "false sense of power that the faster derives from her 
starvation," and is associated, psychologists speculate, with "a 
struggle for control, for a sense of identity, competence, and effec- 
tiveness." 

But then in a more general sense it can surely be argued that all 
masochistic or even suicidal behavior expresses the furious power 
hunger of the powerless. Catherine's whip — -now meaning Heathcliff, 
her "love" for Heathcliff, and also, more deeply, her desire for the 
autonomy her union with Heathcliff represented — turns against 
Catherine. She whips herself because she cannot whip the world, 
and she must whip something. Besides, in whipping herself does 
she not, perhaps, torment the world? Of this she is, in her powerless- 
ness, uncertain, and her uncertainty leads to further madness, 
reinforcing the vicious cycle. "O let me not be mad," she might cry, 
like Lear, as she tears off her own socially prescribed costumes so 
that she can more certainly feel the descent of the whip she herself 
has raised. In her rebelliousness Catherine has earlier played alter- 
nately the parts of Cordelia and of Goneril and Regan to the Lear 
of her father and her husband. Now, in her powerlessness, she 
seems to have herself become a figure like Lear, mourning her lost 
kingdom and suicidally surrendering herself to the blasts that come 
straight down the moor. 

Nevertheless, though her madness and its setting echo Lear's 
disintegration much more than, say, Ophelia's, Catherine is different 
from Lear in a number of crucial ways, the most obvious being the 
fact that her femaleness dooms her to a function as well as a role, 
and threatens her, therefore, with the death Frances's fate had 
predicted. Critics never comment on this point, but the truth is 
that Catherine is pregnant during both the kitchen scene and the 
mad scene, and her death occurs at the time of (and ostensibly 
because of) her "confinement." In the light of this, her anorexia, 
her madness, and her masochism become even more fearsomely 
meaningful. Certainly, for instance, the distorted body that the 
anorexic imagines for herself is analogous to the distorted body that 
the pregnant woman really must confront. Can eating produce such 



286 How Are We FaVn? Milton's Daughters 

a body? The question, mad as it may seem, must be inevitable. In 
any case, some psychoanalysts have suggested that anorexia, endemic 
to pubescent girls, reflects a fear of oral impregnation, to which 
self-starvation would be one obvious response. 47 

But even if a woman accepts, or rather concedes, that she is 
pregnant, an impulse toward self-starvation would seem to be an 
equally obvious response to the pregnant woman's inevitable fear 
of being monstrously inhabited, as well as to her own horror of being 
enslaved to the species and reduced to a tool of the life process. 
Excessive ("pathological") morning sickness has traditionally been 
interpreted as an attempt to vomit up the alien intruder, the child 
planted in the belly like an incubus. 48 And indeed, if the child has 
been fathered — as Catherine's has — by a man the woman defines 
as a stranger, her desire to rid herself of it seems reasonable enough. 
But what if she must kill herself in the process? This is another 
question Catherine's masochistic self-starvation implies, especially 
if we see it as a disguised form of morning sickness. Yet another 
question is more general: must motherhood, like ladyhood, kill? Is 
female sexuality necessarily deadly? 

To the extent that she answers yes, Bronte swerves once again from 
Milton, though rather less radically than usual. For when she was 
separated from her own reflection, Eve was renamed "mother of 
human race," a title Milton seems to have considered honorifically 
life-giving despite the dreadful emblem of maternity Sin provided. 
Catherine's entrance into motherhood, however, darkly parodies 
even if it does not subvert this story. Certainly childbirth brings 
death to her (and eventually to HeathclifT) though at the same time 
it does revitalize the patriarchal order that began to fail at Wuthering 
Heights with her early assertions of individuality. Birth is, after all, 
the ultimate fragmentation the self can undergo, just as "confine- 
ment" is, for women, the ultimate pun on imprisonment. As if in 
recognition of this, Catherine's attempt to escape maternity does, if 
only unconsciously, subvert Milton. For Milton's Eve "knew not 
eating Death." But Bronte's does. In her refusal to be enslaved to 
the species, her refusal to be "mother of human race," she closes her 
mouth on emptiness as, in Plath's words, "on a communion tablet." 
It is no use, of course. She breaks apart into two Catherines — the 
old, mad, dead Catherine fathered by Wuthering Heights, and the 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 287 

new, more docile and acceptable Catherine fathered by Thrushcross 
Grange. But nevertheless, in her defiance Emily Bronte's Eve, like 
her creator, is a sort of hunger artist, a point Charlotte Bronte 
acknowledged when she memorialized her sister in Shirley, that other 
revisionary account of the Genesis of female hunger. 49 



Catherine's fall and her resulting decline, fragmentation, and 
death are the obvious subjects of the first half of Wuthering Heights. 
Not quite so obviously, the second half of the novel is concerned with 
the larger, social consequences of Catherine's fall, which spread out 
in concentric circles like rings from a stone flung into a river, and 
which are examined in a number of parallel stories, including some 
that have already been set in motion at the time of Catherine's death. 
Isabella, Nelly, Heathcliff, and Catherine II — in one way or another 
all these characters' lives parallel (or even in a sense contain) 
Catherine's, as if Bronte were working out a series of alternative 
versions of the same plot. 

Isabella is perhaps the most striking of these parallel figures, for 
like Catherine she is a headstrong, impulsive "miss" who runs away 
from home at adolescence. But where Catherine's fall is both fated 
and unconventional, a fall "upward" from hell to heaven, Isabella's 
is both willful and conventional. Falling from Thrushcross Grange 
to Wuthering Heights, from "heaven" to "hell," in exactly the 
opposite direction from Catherine, Isabella patently chooses her own 
fate, refusing to listen to Catherine's warnings against Heathcliff 
and carefully evading her brother's vigilance. But then Isabella has 
from the first functioned as Catherine's opposite, a model of the 
stereotypical young lady patriarchal education is designed to produce. 
Thus where Catherine is a "stout hearty lass" raised in the raw heart 
of nature at Wuthering Heights, Isabella is slim and pale, a daughter 
of culture and Thrushcross Grange. Where Catherine's childhood is 
androgynous, moreover, as her oneness with Heathcliff implies, 
Isabella has borne the stamp of sexual socialization from the first, 
or so her early division from her brother Edgar — her future guardian 
and master — would suggest. When Catherine and Heathcliff first 
see them, after all, Isabella and Edgar are quarreling over a lapdog, 
a genteel (though covertly sexual) toy they cannot share. "When 



288 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

would you catch me wishing to have what Catherine wanted? or 
find us [arguing] divided by the whole room?" Heathcliff muses on 
the scene (chap. 6). Indeed, so much the opposite of Catherine's is 
Isabella's life and lineage that it is almost as if Bronte, in contriving 
it, were saying "Let's see what would happen if I told Catherine's 
story the 'right' way" — that is, with socially approved characters 
and situations. 

As Isabella's fate suggests, however — and this is surely part of 
Bronte's point — the "right" beginning of the story seems almost as 
inevitably to lead to the wrong ending as the wrong or "subversive" 
beginning. Ironically, Isabella's bookish upbringing has prepared 
her to fall in love with (of all people) Heathcliff. Precisely because she 
has been taught to believe in coercive literary conventions, Isabella 
is victimized by the genre of romance. Mistaking appearance for 
reality, tall athletic Heathcliff for "an honourable soul" instead of 
"a fierce, pitiless wolfish man," she runs away from her cultured 
home in the naive belief that it will simply be replaced by another 
cultivated setting. But like Claire Clairmont, who enacted a similar 
drama in real life, she underestimates both the ferocity of the Byronic 
hero and the powerlessness of all women, even "ladies," in her society. 
Her experiences at Wuthering Heights teach her that hell really is 
hellish for the children of heaven : like a parody of Catherine, she 
starves, pines and sickens, oppressed by that Miltonic grotesque, 
Joseph, for she is unable to stomach the rough food of nature (or hell) 
just as Catherine cannot swallow the food of culture (or heaven). She 
does not literally die of all this, but when she escapes, giggling like a 
madwoman, from her self-imprisonment, she is so effectively banished 
from the novel by her brother (and Bronte) that she might as well 
be dead. 

Would Isabella's fate have been different if she had fallen in love 
with someone less problematical than Heathcliff — with a man of 
culture, for instance, rather than a Satanic nature figure? Would she 
have prospered with the love of someone like her own brother, or 
Heathcliff's tenant, Lockwood? Her early relationship with Edgar, 
together with Edgar's patriarchal rigidity, hint that she would not. 
Even more grimly suggestive is the story Lockwood tells in chapter 1 
about his romantic encounter at the seacoast. Readers will recall that 
the "fascinating creature" he admired was "a real goddess in my 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 289 

eyes, as long as she took no notice of [me]." But when she "looked 
a return," her lover "shrunk icily into myself. . . till finally the poor 
innocent was led to doubt her own senses ..." (chap. 1). Since even 
the most cultivated women are powerless, women are evidently at 
the mercy of all men, Lock woods and Heathcliffs alike. 

Thus if literary Lockwood makes a woman into a goddess, he can 
unmake her at whim without suffering himself. If literary Isabella 
makes a man into a god or hero, however, she must suffer — may even 
have to die — for her mistake. Lockwood in effect kills his goddess for 
being human, and would no doubt do the same to Isabella. Heath- 
cliff, on the other hand, literally tries to kill Isabella for trying to be 
a goddess, an angel, a lady, and for having, therefore, a "mawkish, 
waxen face." Either way, Isabella must in some sense be killed, for 
her fate, like Catherine's, illustrates the double binds with which 
patriarchal society inevitably crushes the feet of runaway girls. 40 
Perhaps it is to make this point even more dramatically that Bronte 
has Heathcliff hang Isabella's genteelly named springer, Fanny, 
from a "bridle hook" on the night he and Isabella elope. Just as the 
similarity of Isabella's and Catherine's fates suggests that "to fall" 
and "to fall in love" are equivalents, so the bridle or bridal hook is an 
apt, punning metaphor for the institution of marriage in a world 
where fallen women, like their general mother Eve, are (as Dickinson 
says) "Born— Bridalled— Shrouded— / In a Day." 51 

Nelly Dean, of course, seems to many critics to have been put into 
the novel to help Emily Bronte disavow such uniformly dark inten- 
tions. "For a specimen of true benevolence and homely fidelity, look 
at the character of Nelly Dean," Charlotte Bronte says with what 
certainly appears to be conviction, trying to soften the picture of 
"perverse passion and passionate perversity" Victorian readers 
thought her sister had produced. 4 * And Charlotte Bronte "rightly 
defended her sister against allegations of abnormality by pointing 
out that . . . Emily had created the wholesome, maternal Nelly 
Dean," comments Q. D. Leavis. 43 How wholesome and maternal is 
Nelly Dean, however? And if we agree that she is basically benevolent, 
of what does her benevolence consist? Problematic words like whole- 
some and benevolent suggest a point where we can start to trace the 
relationship between Nelly's history and Catherine's (or Isabella's). 

To begin with, of course, Nelly is healthy and wholesome because 



290 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

she is a survivor, as the artist-narrator must be. Early in the novel, 
Lockwood refers to her as his "human fixture," and there is, indeed, 
a durable thinglike quality about her, as if she had outlasted the 
Earnshaw/Linton storms of passion like their two houses, or as if 
she were a wall, a door, an object of furniture meant to begin a 
narration in response to the conventional sigh of "Ah, if only these 
old walls could speak, what stories they would tell." Like a wall or 
fixture, moreover, Nelly has a certain impassivity, a diplomatic 
immunity to entangling emotions. Though she sometimes expresses 
strong feelings about the action, she manages to avoid taking sides — 
or, rather, like a wall, she is related to both sides. Consequently, as 
the artist must, she can go anywhere and hear everything. 

At the same time, Nelly's evasions suggest ways in which her 
history has paralleled the lives of Catherine and Isabella, though she 
has rejected their commitments and thus avoided their catastrophes. 
Hindley, for instance, was evidently once as close to Nelly as Heath- 
cliff was to Catherine. Indeed, like HeathclifT, Nelly seems to have 
been a sort of stepchild at the Heights. When old Mr. Earnshaw left 
on his fateful trip to Liverpool, he promised to bring back a gift of 
apples and pears for Nelly as well as the fiddle and whip Hindley 
and Catherine had asked for. Because she is only "a poor man's 
daughter," however, Nelly is excluded from the family, specifically 
by being defined as its servant. Luckily for her, therefore (or so it 
seems), she has avoided the incestuous/egalitarian relationship with 
Hindley that Catherine has with Heathcliff, and at the same time — 
because she is ineligible for marriage into either family — she has 
escaped the bridal hook of matrimony that destroys both Isabella 
and Catherine. 

It is for these reasons, finally, that Nelly is able to tell the story of all 
these characters without herself becoming ensnared in it, or perhaps, 
more accurately, she is able (like Bronte herself) to use the act of 
telling the story as a strategy for protecting herself from such en- 
trapment. "I have read more than you would fancy, Mr. Lockwood," 
Nelly remarks to her new master. "You could not open a book in 
this library that I have not looked into and got something out of also 
... it is as much as you can expect of a poor man's daughter" (59). 
By this she means, no doubt, that in her detachment she knows about 
Miltonic fears of falling and Richardsonian dreams of rising, about 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 291 

the anxieties induced by patriarchal education and the hallucinations 
of genteel romance. 64 And precisely because she has such a keen 
literary consciousness, she is able ultimately to survive and to triumph 
over her sometimes unruly story. Even when Heathcliff locks her up, 
for example, Nelly gets out (unlike Catherine and Isabella, who are 
never really able to escape), and one by one the deviants who have 
tried to reform her tale — Catherine, Heathcliff, even Isabella — die, 
while Nelly survives. She survives and, as Bersani has also noted, she 
coerces the story into a more docile and therefore more congenial 
mode. 5 * 

To speak of coercion in connection with Nelly may seem unduly 
negative, certainly from the Leavisite perspective. And in support of 
that perspective we should note that besides being wholesome because 
she is a survivor, Nelly is benevolent because she is a nurse, a nurturer, 
a foster-mother. The gift Mr. Earnshaw promises her is as symbolically 
significant in this respect as Catherine's whip and Hindley's fiddle, 
although our later experiences of Nelly suggest that she wants the 
apples and pears not so much for herself as for others. For though 
Nelly's health suggests that she is a hearty eater, she is most often 
seen feeding others, carrying baskets of apples, stirring porridge, 
roasting meats, pouring tea. Wholesomely nurturing, she does appear 
to be in some sense an ideal woman, a "general mother" — if not from 
Emily Bronte's point of view, then from, say, Milton's. And indeed, 
if we look again at the crucial passage in Shirley where Charlotte 
Bronte's Shirley/Emily criticizes Milton, we find an unmistakable 
version of Nelly Dean. "Milton tried to see the first woman," says 
Shirley, "but, Cary, he saw her not. ... It was his cook that he saw . . . 
puzzled 'what choice to choose for delicacy best. . . . '" 

This comment explains a great deal. For if Nelly Dean is Eve as 
Milton's cook — Eve, that is, as Milton (but not Bronte or Shirley) 
would have had her — she does not pluck apples to eat them herself; 
she plucks them to make applesauce. And similarly, she does not tell 
stories to participate in them herself, to consume the emotional food 
they offer, but to create a moral meal, a didactic fare that will 
nourish future generations in docility. As Milton's cook, in fact, 
Nelly Dean is patriarchy's paradigmatic housekeeper, the man's 
woman who has traditionally been hired to keep men's houses in 
order by straightening out their parlors, their daughters, and their 



292 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton's Daughters 



stories. "My heart invariably cleaved to the master's, in preference 
to Catherine's side," she herself declares (chap. 10), and she expresses 
her preference by acting throughout the novel as a censorious agent of 
patriarchy. 

Catherine's self-starvation, for instance, is notably prolonged by 
Nelly's failure to tell "the master" what his wife is doing, though in 
the first place it was induced by tale-bearing on Nelly's part. All 
her life Catherine has had trouble stomaching the food offered by 
Milton's cook, and so it is no wonder that in her madness she sees 
Nelly as a witch "gathering elf-bolts to hurt our heifers." It is not 
so much that Nelly Dean is "Evil," as Q. D. Leavis scolds "an 
American critic" for suggesting, 5 ' but that she is accommodatingly 
manipulative, a stereotypically benevolent man's woman. As such, 
she would and does "hurt [the] heifers" that inhabit such an anti- 
Miltonic heaven of femaleness as Wuthering Heights. In fact, as 
Catherine's "mad" words acknowledge, there is a sense in which 
Nelly Dean herself is Milton's bogey, the keeper of the house who 
closes windows (as Nelly does throughout Wuthering Heights) and 
locks women into the common sitting room. And because Emily 
Bronte is not writing a revolutionary polemic but a myth of origins, 
she chooses to tell her story of psychogenesis ironically, through the 
words of the survivor who helped make the story — through "the 
perdurable voice of the country," in Schorer's apt phrase. Reading 
Nelly's text, we see what we have lost through the eyes of the cook 
who has transformed us into what we are. 

But if Nelly parallels or comments upon Catherine by representing 
Eve as Milton's cook, while Isabella represents Catherine/Eve as a 
bourgeois literary lady, it may at first be hard to see how or why 
Heathcliff parallels Catherine at all. Though he is Catherine's alter 
ego, he certainly seems to be, in Bersani's words, "a non-identical 
double." 87 Not only is he male while she is female — implying many 
subtle as well as a few obvious differences, in this gender-obsessed 
book — but he seems to be a triumphant survivor, an insider, a power- 
usurper throughout most of the novel's second half, while Catherine 
is not only a dead failure but a wailing, outcast ghost. Heathcliff 
does love her and mourn her — and finally Catherine does in some 
sense "kill" him — but beyond such melodramatically romantic con- 
nections, what bonds unite these one-time lovers? 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 293 

Perhaps we can best begin to answer this question by examining 
the passionate words with which Heathcliff closes his first grief- 
stricken speech after Catherine's death: "Oh, God! it is unutterable! 
I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!" (chap. 
16). Like the metaphysical paradox embedded in Catherine's crucial 
adolescent speech to Nelly about Heathcliff ("He's more myself than 
I am"), these words have often been thought to be, on the one hand, 
emptily rhetorical, and on the other, severely mystical. But suppose 
we try to imagine what they might mean as descriptions of a psycho- 
logical fact about the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine. 
Catherine's assertion that Heathcliff was herself quite reasonably 
summarized, after all, her understanding that she was being trans- 
formed into a lady while Heathcliff retained the ferocity of her 
primordial half-savage self. Similarly, Heathcliff 's exclamation that 
he cannot live without his soul may express, as a corollary of this idea, 
the "gypsy's" own deep sense of being Catherine's whip, and his 
perception that he has now become merely the soulless body of a 
vanished passion. But to be merely a body — a whip without a 
mistress — is to be a sort of monster, a fleshly thing, an object of pure 
animal materiality like the abortive being Victor Frankenstein 
created. And such a monster is indeed what Heathcliff becomes. 

From the first, Heathcliff has had undeniable monster potential, 
as many readers have observed. Isabella's questions to Nelly — "Is 
Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not is he a devil?" 
(chap. 13) — indicate among other things Emily Bronte's cool aware- 
ness of having created an anomalous being, a sort of "Ghoul" or 
"Afreet," not (as her sister half hoped) "despite" herself but for good 
reasons. Uniting human and animal traits, the skills of culture with 
the energies of nature, Heathcliff's character tests the boundaries 
between human and animal, nature and culture, and in doing so 
proposes a new definition of the demonic. What is more important 
for our purposes here, however, is the fact that, despite his outward 
masculinity, Heathcliff is somehow female in his monstrosity. Besides 
in a general way suggesting a set of questions about humanness, his 
existence therefore summarizes a number of important points about 
the relationship between maleness and femaleness as, say, Milton 
representatively defines it. 

To say that Heathcliff is "female" may at first sound mad or 



294 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton's Daughters 

absurd. As we noted earlier, his outward masculinity seems to be 
definitively demonstrated by his athletic build and military carriage, 
as well as by the Byronic sexual charisma that he has for ladylike 
Isabella. And though we saw that Edgar is truly patriarchal despite 
his apparent effeminacy, there is no real reason why Heathcliff 
should not simply represent an alternative version of masculinity, 
the maleness of the younger son, that paradigmatic outsider in 
patriarchy. To some extent, of course, this is true: Heathcliff is clearly 
just as male in his Satanic outcast way as Edgar in his angelically 
established way. But at the same time, on a deeper associative level, 
Heathcliffis "female" — on the level where younger sons and bastards 
and devils unite with women in rebelling against the tyranny of 
heaven, the level where orphans are female and heirs are male, where 
flesh is female and spirit is male, earth female, sky male, monsters 
female, angels male. 

The sons of Urizen were born from heaven, Blake declares, but "his 
daughters from green herbs and cattle, / From monsters and worms 
of the pit." He might be describing Heathcliff, the "little dark thing" 
whose enigmatic ferocity suggests vegetation spirits, hell, pits, night — 
all the "female" irrationality of nature. Nameless as a woman, the 
gypsy orphan old Earnshaw brings back from the mysterious bowels 
of Liver/pool is clearly as illegitimate as daughters are in a patrilineal 
culture. He speaks, moreover, a kind of animal-like gibberish which, 
together with his foreign swarthiness, causes sensible Nelly to refer 
to him at first as an "it," implying (despite his apparent maleness) 
a deep inability to get his gender straight. His "it-ness" or id-ness 
emphasizes, too, both his snarling animal qualities — his appetites, 
his brutality — and his thingness. And the fact that he speaks gibberish 
suggests the profound alienation of the physical/natural/female realm 
he represents from language, culture's tool and the glory of "spirits 
Masculine." In even the most literal way, then, he is what Elaine 
Showalter calls "a woman's man," a male figure into which a female 
artist projects in disguised form her own anxieties about her sex and 
its meaning in her society. 58 Indeed, if Nelly Dean is Milton's cook, 
Heathcliff incarnates that unregenerate natural world which must 
be metaphorically cooked or spiritualized, and therefore a raw kind 
of femaleness that, Bronte shows, has to be exorcised if it cannot be 
controlled. 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 295 

In most human societies the great literal and figurative chefs, 
from Brillat-Savarin to Milton, are males, but as Sherry Ortner has 
noted, everyday "cooking" (meaning such low-level conversions from 
nature to culture as child-rearing, pot-making, bread-baking) is done 
by women, who are in effect charged with the task of policing the 
realm they represent. 58 This point may help explain how and why 
Catherine Earnshaw becomes Heathcliff's "soul." After Nelly as 
archetypal house-keeper finishes nursing him, high-spirited Catherine 
takes over his education because he meets her needs for power. Their 
relationship works so well, however, because just as he provides her 
with an extra body to lessen her female vulnerability, so she fills 
his need for a soul, a voice, a language with which to address cul- 
tured men like Edgar. Together they constitute an autonymous and 
androgynous (or, more accurately, gynandrous) whole: a woman's 
man and a woman/or herself m Sartre's sense, making up one complete 
woman. 80 So complete do they feel, in fact, that as we have seen they 
define their home at Wuthering Heights as a heaven, and themselves 
as a sort of Blakeian angel, as if sketching out the definition of an 
angel D. H. Lawrence would have Tom Brangwen offer seventy-five 
years later in The Rainbow : 

"If we've got to be Angels, and if there is no such thing as a 
man nor a woman amongst them, then ... a married couple 
makes one Angel. . . . For ... an Angel can't be less than a 
human being. And if it was only the soul of a man minus the man, 
then it would be less than a human being." 61 

That the world — particularly Lockwood, Edgar, and Isabella — 
sees the heaven of Wuthering Heights as a "hell" is further evidence 
of the hellish femaleness that characterizes this gynandrous body and 
soul. It is early evidence, too, that without his "soul" Heathcliffwill 
become an entirely diabolical brute, a "Ghoul" or "Afreet." Speculat- 
ing seriocomically that women have souls "only to make them capable 
of Damnation," John Donne articulated the traditional complex of 
ideas underlying this point even before Milton did. "Why hath the 
common opinion afforded women soules?" Donne asked. After all, 
he noted, women's only really "spiritual" quality is their power of 
speech, "for which they are beholding to their bodily instruments: For 
perchance an Oxes heart, or a Goates, or a Foxes, or a Serpents would 



296 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

speak just so, if it were in the breast, and could move that tongue and 
jawes."** Though speaking of women, he might have been defining 
the problem Isabella was to articulate for Emily Bronte: "Is Mr. 
Heathcliff a man? Or what is he?" 

As we have already seen, when Catherine is first withdrawn from 
the adolescent Heathcliff, the boy becomes increasingly brutish, 
as if to foreshadow his eventual soullessness. Returning in her ladylike 
costume from Thrushcross Grange, Catherine finds her one-time 
"counterpart" in old clothes covered with "mire and dirt," his face 
and hands "dismally beclouded" by dirt that suggests his inescapable 
connection with the filthiness of nature. Similarly, when Catherine 
is dying Nelly is especially conscious that Heathcliff "gnashed . . . 
and foamed like a mad dog," so that she does not feel as if he is a 
creature of her own species (chap. 15). Still later, after his "soul's" 
death, it seems to her that Heathcliff howls "not like a man, but 
like a savage beast getting goaded to death with knives and spears" 
(chap. 16) His subsequent conduct, though not so overtly animal- 
like, is consistent with such behavior. Bastardly and dastardly, a true 
son of the bitch goddess Nature, throughout the second half, of 
Wuthering Heights Heathcliff pursues a murderous revenge against 
patriarchy, a revenge most appropriately expressed by King Lear's 
equally outcast Edmund: "Well, then, / Legitimate Edgar, I must 
have your land."* 8 For Bronte's revisionary genius manifests itself 
especially in her perception of the deep connections among Shake- 
speare's Edmund, Milton's Satan, Mary Shelley's monster, the demon 
lover/animal groom figure of innumerable folktales — and Eve, the 
original rebellious female. 

Because he unites characteristics of all these figures in a single body, 
HeathclifT in one way or another acts like all of them throughout the 
second half of Wuthering Heights. His general aim in this part of the 
novel is to wreak the revenge of nature upon culture by subverting 
legitimacy. Thus, like Edmund (and Edmund's female counterparts 
Goneril and Regan) he literally takes the place of one legitimate heir 
after another, supplanting both Hindley and Hareton at the Heights, 
and — eventually — Edgar at the Grange. Moreover, he not only 
replaces legitimate culture but in his rage strives like Frankenstein's 
monster to end it. His attempts at killing Isabella and Hindley, as 
well as the infanticidal tendencies expressed in his merciless abuse 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 297 

of his own son, indicate his desire not only to alter the ways of his 
world but literally to dis-continue them, to get at the heart of patri- 
archy by stifling the line of descent that ultimately gives culture its 
legitimacy. Lear's "hysterica passio," his sense that he is being 
smothered by female nature, which has inexplicably risen against all 
fathers everywhere, is seriously parodied, therefore, by the suffocating 
womb/room of death where Heathcliff locks up his sickly son and 
legitimate Edgar's daughter.* 4 Like Satan, whose fall was originally 
inspired by envy of the celestial legitimacy incarnated in the Son of 
God, Heathcliff steals or perverts birthrights. Like Eve and her 
double, Sin, he undertakes such crimes against a Urizenic heaven in 
order to vindicate his own worth, assert his own energy. And again, 
like Satan, whose hellish kingdom is a shadowy copy of God's 
luminous one, or like those suavely unregenerate animal grooms 
Mr. Fox and Bluebeard, he manages to achieve a great deal because 
he realizes that in order to subvert legitimacy he must first imper- 
sonate it; that is, to kill patriarchy, he must first pretend to be a 
patriarch. 

Put another way, this simply means that Heathcliff 's charismatic 
maleness is at least in part a result of his understanding that he must 
defeat on its own terms the society that has defeated him. Thus, though 
he began his original gynandrous life at Wuthering Heights as 
Catherine's whip, he begins his transformed, soulless or Satanic life 
there as Isabella's bridal hook. Similarly, throughout the extended 
maneuvers against Edgar and his daughter which occupy him for 
the twenty years between Isabella's departure and his own death, 
he impersonates a "devil daddy," stealing children like Catherine II 
and Linton from their rightful homes, trying to separate Milton's 
cook from both her story and her morality, and perverting the 
innocent Hareton into an artificially blackened copy of himself. His 
understanding of the inauthenticity of his behavior is consistently 
shown by his irony. Heathcliff knows perfectly well that he is not 
really a father in the true (patriarchal) sense of the word, if only 
because he has himself no surname ; he is simply acting like a father, 
and his bland, amused "I want my children about me to be sure" 
(chap. 29) comments upon the world he despises by sardonically 
mimicking it, just as Satan mimics God's logic and Edmund mimics 
Gloucester's astrologic. 



298 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

On the one hand, therefore, as Linton's deathly father, Heathcliff, 
like Satan, is truly the father of death (begotten, however, not upon 
Sin but upon silliness), but on the other hand he is very consciously 
a mock father, a male version of the terrible devouring mother, whose 
blackly comic admonitions to Catherine II ("No more runnings 
away! . . . I'm come to fetch you home, and I hope you'll be a dutiful 
daughter, and not encourage my son to further disobedience" [chap. 
29]) evoke the bleak hilarity of hell with their satire of Miltonic 
righteousness. Given the complexity of all this, it is no wonder Nelly 
considers his abode at the Heights "an oppression past explaining." 

Since Heathcliff's dark energies seem so limitless, why does his 
vengeful project fail? Ultimately, no doubt, it fails because in stories 
of the war between nature and culture nature always fails. But that 
point is of course a tautology. Culture tells the story (that is, the story 
is a cultural construct) and the story is etiological: how culture 
triumphed over nature, where parsonages and tea-parties came from, 
how the lady got her skirts — and her deserts. Thus Edmund, Satan, 
Frankenstein's monster, Mr. Fox, Bluebeard, Eve, and Heathcliff all 
must fail in one way or another, if only to explain the status quo. 
Significantly, however, where Heathcliff's analogs are universally 
destroyed by forces outside themselves, Heathcliff seems to be killed, 
as Catherine was, by something within himself. His death from self- 
starvation makes his function as Catherine's almost identical double 
definitively clear. Interestingly, though, when we look closely at the 
events leading up to his death it becomes equally clear that Heathcliff 
is not just killed by his own despairing desire for his vanished "soul" 
but at least in part by another one of Catherine's parallels, the new 
and cultivated Catherine who has been reborn through the interven- 
tion of patriarchy in the form of Edgar Linton. It is no accident, 
certainly, that Catherine II 's imprisonment at the Heights and her 
rapprochement with Hareton coincide with Heathcliff's perception 
that "there is a strange change approaching," with his vision of the 
lost Catherine, and with his development of an eating disorder very 
much akin to Catherine's anorexia nervosa. 



If Heathcliff is Catherine's almost identical double, Catherine II 
really is her mother's "non-identical double." Though he has his 
doubles confused, Bersani does note that Nelly's "mild moralizing" 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 299 

seems "suited to the younger Catherine's playful independence." 85 
For where her headstrong mother genuinely struggled for autonomy, 
the more docile Catherine II merely plays at disobedience, taking 
make-believe journeys within the walls of her father's estate and 
dutifully surrendering her illicit (though equally make-believe) love 
letters at a word from Nelly. Indeed, in almost every way Catherine 
II differs from her fierce dead mother in being culture's child, a born 
lady. "It's as if Emily Bronte were telling the same story twice," 
Bersani observes, "and eliminating its originality the second time." 88 
But though he is right that Bronte is telling the same story over again 
(really for the third or fourth time), she is not repudiating her own 
originality. Rather, through her analysis of Catherine II 's successes, 
she is showing how society repudiated Catherine's originality. 

Where, for instance, Catherine Earnshaw rebelled against her 
father, Catherine II is profoundly dutiful. One of her most notable 
adventures occurs when she runs away from Wuthering Heights to 
get back to her father, a striking contrast to the escapes of Catherine 
and Isabella, both of whom ran purposefully away from the world of 
fathers and older brothers. Because she is a dutiful daughter, more- 
over, Catherine II is a cook, nurse, teacher, and housekeeper. In 
other words, where her mother was a heedless wild child, Catherine II 
promises to become an ideal Victorian woman, all of whose virtues 
are in some sense associated with daughterhood, wifehood, mother- 
hood. Since Nelly Dean was her foster mother, literally replacing the 
original Catherine, her development of these talents is not surprising. 
To be mothered by Milton's cook and fathered by one of his angels 
is to become, inevitably, culture's child. Thus Catherine II nurses 
Linton (even though she dislikes him), brews tea for Heathcliff, helps 
Nelly prepare vegetables, teaches Hareton to read, and replaces the 
wild blackberries at Wuthering Heights with flowers from Thrush- 
cross Grange. Literary as her father and her aunt Isabella, she has 
learned the lessons of patriarchal Christianity so well that she even 
piously promises Heathcliff that she will forgive both him and Linton 
for their sins against her: "I know [Linton] has a bad nature . . . he's 
your son. But I'm glad I've a better to forgive it" (chap. 29). At the 
same time, she has a genteel (or Urizenic) feeling for rank which 
comes out in her early treatment of Hareton, Zillah, and others at 
the Heights. 

Even when she stops biblically forgiving, moreover, literary modes 



300 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

dominate Catherine II's character. The "black arts" she tries to 
practice are essentially bookish — and plainly inauthentic. Indeed, 
if Heathcliff is merely impersonating a father at this point in the 
story, Catherine II is merely impersonating a witch. A real witch 
would threaten culture; but Catherine II's vocation is to serve it, for 
as her personality suggests, she is perfectly suited to (has been raised 
for) what Sherry Ortner defines as the crucial female function of 
mediating between nature and culture.* 7 Thus it is she who finally 
restores order to both the Heights and the Grange by marrying 
Hareton Earnshaw, whom she has, significantly, prepared for his 
new mastery by teaching him to read. Through her intervention, 
therefore, he can at last recognize the name over the lintel at Wither- 
ing Heights — the name Hareton Earnshaw — which is both his own 
name and the name of the founder of the house, the primordial 
patriarch. 

With his almost preternatural sensitivity to threats, Heathcliff 
himself recognizes the danger Catherine II represents. When, offering 
to "forgive him," she tries to embrace him he shudders and remarks 
"I'd rather hug a snake!" Later, when she and Hareton have 
cemented their friendship, Heathcliff constantly addresses her as 
"witch" and "slut." In the world's terms, she is the opposite of these: 
she is virtually an angel in the house. But for just those reasons she is 
Urizenically dangerous to Heathcliff 's Pandemonium at the Heights. 
Besides threatening his present position, however, Catherine II's 
union with Hareton reminds Heathcliff specifically of the heaven 
he has lost. Looking up from their books, the young couple reveal 
that "their eyes are precisely similar, and they are those of Catherine 
Earnshaw" (chap. 33). Ironically, however, the fact that Catherine's 
descendants "have" her eyes tells Heathcliff not so much that 
Catherine endures as that she is both dead and fragmented. Catherine 
II has only her mother's eyes, and though Hareton has more of her 
features, he too is conspicuously not Catherine. Thus when Edgar 
dies and Heathcliff opens Catherine's casket as if to free her ghost, or 
when Lockwood opens the window as if to admit the witch child of 
his nightmare, the original Catherine arises in her ghostly wholeness 
from the only places where she can still exist in wholeness: the 
cemetary, the moor, the storm, the irrational realm of those that fly 
by night, the realm of Satan, Eve, Sin, and Death. Outside of this 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 301 

realm, the ordinary world inhabited by Catherine II and Hareton 
is, Heathcliffnow notes, merely "a dreadful collection of memoranda 
that [Catherine] did exist, and that I have lost her!" (chap. 33). 

Finally, Catherine IPs alliance with Hareton awakens Heathcliff 
to truths about the younger man that he had not earlier understood, 
and in a sense his consequent disillusionment is the last blow that 
sends him toward death. Throughout the second half of the novel 
Heathcliff has taken comfort not only in Hareton's "startling" 
physical likeness to Catherine, but also in the likeness of the dis- 
possessed boy's situation to his own early exclusion from society. 
"Hareton seem[s] a personification of my youth, not a human being," 
Heathcliff tells Nelly (chap. 33). This evidently causes him to see the 
illiterate outcast as metaphorically the true son of his own true union 
with Catherine. Indeed, where he had originally dispossessed Hareton 
as a way of revenging himself upon Hindley, Heathcliff seems later 
to want to keep the boy rough and uncultivated so that he, Heathcliff, 
will have at least one strong natural descendant (as opposed to 
Linton, his false and deathly descendant). As Hareton moves into 
Catherine IPs orbit, however, away from nature and toward culture, 
Heathcliff realizes the mistake he has made. Where he had supposed 
that Hareton's reenactment of his own youth might even somehow 
restore the lost Catherine, and thus the lost Catherine-Heathcliff, 
he now sees that Hareton's reenactment of his youth is essentially 
corrective, a retelling of the story the "right" way. Thus if we can 
call Catherine II C* and define Hareton as H ! , we might arrive at 
the following formulation of Heathcliff's problem : where C plus H 
equals fullness of being for both C and H, C* plus H* specifically 
equals a negation of both C and H. Finally, the ambiguities of 
Hareton's name summarize in another way Heathcliff 's problem 
with this most puzzling Earnshaw. On the one hand, Hare/ton is a 
nature name, like Heathcliff. But on the other hand, Hare/ton, 
suggesting Heir/ton (Heir/town?) is a punning indicator of the young 
man's legitimacy. 

It is in his triumphant legitimacy that Hareton, together with 
Catherine II, acts to exorcise Heathcliff" from the traditionally 
legitimate world of the Grange and the newly legitimized world of 
Wuthering Heights. Fading into nature, where Catherine persists 
"in every cloud, in every tree," Heathcliff can no longer eat the 



302 How Art We Fal'n ? Milton's Daughters 

carefully cooked human food that Nelly offers him. While Catherine 
II decorates Hareton's porridge with cut flowers, the older man has 
irreligious fantasies of dying and being unceremoniously "carried to 
the churchyard in the evening." "I have nearly attained my heaven," 
he tells Nelly as he fasts and fades, "and that of others is . . . uncoveted 
by me" (chap, 34). Then, when he dies, the boundaries between 
nature and culture crack for a moment, as if to let him pass through : 
his window swings open, the rain drives in. "Th' divil's harried off his 
soul," exclaims old Joseph, Wuthering Heights' mock Milton, falling 
to his knees and giving thanks "that the lawful master and the ancient 
stock [are] restored to their rights" (chap. 34) . The illegitimate Heath- 
cliff/Catherine have finally been re-placed in nature/hell, and 
replaced by Hareton and Catherine II — a proper couple — just as 
Nelly replaced Catherine as a proper mother for Catherine II. 
Quite reasonably, Nelly now observes that "The crown of all my 
wishes will be the union of" this new, civilized couple, and Lockwood 
notes of the new pair that "together, they would brave Satan and all 
his legions." Indeed, in both Milton's and Bronte's terms (it is the 
only point on which the two absolutely agree) they have already 
braved Satan, and they have triumphed. It is now 1802; the Heights 
— hell — has been converted into the Grange — heaven; and with 
patriarchal history redefined, renovated, restored, the nineteenth 
century can truly begin, complete with tea-parties, ministering angels, 
governesses, and parsonages. 



Joseph's important remark about the restoration of the lawful 
master and the ancient stock, together with the dates — 1801/1802 — 
which surround Nelly's tale of a pseudo-mythic past, confirm the 
idea that Wuthering Heights is somehow etiological. More, the famous 
care with which Bronte worked out the details surrounding both the 
novel's dates and the Earnshaw-Linton lineage suggests she herself 
was quite conscious that she was constructing a story of origins and 
renewals. Having arrived at the novel's conclusion, we can now go 
back to its beginning, and try to summarize the basic story Wuthering 
Heights tells. Though this may not be the book's only story, it is 
surely a crucial one. As the names on the windowsill indicate, 
Wuthering Heights begins and ends with Catherine and her various 



Looking Oppositely : Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 303 

avatars. More specifically, it studies the evolution of Catherine 
Earnshaw into Catherine Heathcliff and Catherine Linton, and then 
her return through Catherine Linton II and Catherine Heathcliff II 
to her "proper" role as Catherine Earnshaw II. More generally, 
what this evolution and de-evolution conveys is the following parodic, 
anti-Miltonic myth: 

There was an Original Mother (Catherine), a daughter of nature 
whose motto might be "Thou, Nature, art my goddess ; to thy law / My 
services are bound." But this girl fell into a decline, at least in part 
through eating the poisonous cooked food of culture. She fragmented 
herself into mad or dead selves on the one hand (Catherine, Heath- 
cliff) and into lesser, gentler/genteeler selves on the other (Catherine 
II, Hareton). The fierce primordial selves disappeared into nature, 
the perversely hellish heaven which was their home. The more 
teachable and docile selves learned to read and write, and moved 
into the fallen cultured world of parlors and parsonages, the Miltonic 
heaven which, from the Original Mother's point of view, is really 
hell. Their passage from nature to culture was facilitated by a series 
of teachers, preachers, nurses, cooks, and model ladies or patriarchs 
(Nelly, Joseph, Frances, the Lintons), most of whom gradually dis- 
appear by the end of the story, since these lesser creations have been 
so well instructed that they are themselves able to become teachers or 
models for other generations. Indeed, so model are they that they 
can be identified with the founders of ancestral houses (Hareton 
Earnshaw, 1500) and with the original mother redefined as the 
patriarch's wife (Catherine Linton Heathcliff Earnshaw) . 

The nature/culture polarities in this Bronte' myth have caused a 
number of critics to see it as a version of the so-called Animal Groom 
story, like Beauty and the Beast, or the Frog Prince. But, as Bruno 
Bettelheim has most recently argued, such tales usually function to 
help listeners and readers assimilate sexuality into consciousness and 
thus nature into culture (e.g., the beast is really lovable, the frog 
really handsome, etc.). 88 In Wuthering Heights, however, while culture 
does require nature's energy as raw material — the Grange needs 
the Heights, Edgar wants Catherine — society's most pressing need 
is to exorcise the rebelliously Satanic, irrational, and "female" 
representatives of nature. In this respect, Bronte's novel appears to 
be closer to a number of American Indian myths Levi-Strauss 



304 How Are We Fal'n ? Milton 's Daughters 

recounts than it is to any of the fairy tales with which it is usually 
compared. In particular, it is reminiscent of an Opaye Indian tale 
called "The Jaguar's Wife." 

In this story, a girl marries a jaguar so that she can get all the 
meat she wants for herself and her family. After a while, as a result 
of her marriage, the jaguar comes to live with the Indians, and for a 
time the girl's family becomes friendly with the new couple. Soon, 
however, a grandmother feels mistrust. "The young woman [is] 
gradually turning into a beast of prey. . . . Only her face remain[s] 
human . . . the old woman therefore resort [s] to witchcraft and 
kill[s] her granddaughter." After this, the family is very frightened 
of the jaguar, expecting him to take revenge. And although he does 
not do so, he promises enigmatically that "Perhaps you will remember 
me in years to come," and goes off "incensed by the murder and 
spreading fear by his roaring; but the sound [comes] from farther 
and farther away."" 

Obviously this myth is analogous to Wuthering Heights in a number 
of ways, with alien and animal-like Heathcliff paralleling the jaguar, 
Catherine paralleling the jaguar's wife, Nelly Dean functioning as 
the defensive grandmother, and Catherine II and Hareton acting 
like the family which inherits meat and a jaguar-free world from the 
departed wife. Levi-Strauss's analysis of the story makes these like- 
nesses even clearer, however, and in doing so it clarifies what Bronte 
must have seen as the grim necessities of Wuthering Heights. 

In order that all man's present possessions (which the jaguar 
has now lost) may come to him from the jaguar (who enjoyed 
them formerly when man was without them), there must be 
some agent capable of establishing a relation between them: 
this is where the jaguar's (human) wife fits in. 

But once the transfer has been accomplished (through the 
agency of the wife) : 

a) The woman becomes useless, because she has served her 
purpose as a preliminary condition, which was the only purpose 
she had. 

b) Her survival would contradict the fundamental situation, 
which is characterized by a total absence of reciprocity. 

The jaguar's wife must therefore be eliminated." 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 305 

Though L6vi-Strauss does not discuss this point, we should note 
too that the jaguar's distant roaring hints he may return some day: 
obviously culture must be vigilant against nature, the superego must 
be ready at all times to battle the id. Similarly, the random weakening 
of Wuthering Heights' walk with which Bronte's novel began — 
symbolized by old Earnshaw's discovery of Heathcliffin Liverpool — 
suggests that patriarchal culture is always only precariously holding 
off the rebellious forces of nature. Who, after all, can say with certainty 
that the restored line of Hareton Earnshaw 1802 will not someday 
be just as vulnerable to the onslaughts of the goddess's illegitimate 
children as the line of Hareton Earnshaw 1500 was to Heathcliff's 
intrusion? And who is to say that the caning of Hareton Earnshaw 
1500 was not similarly preceded by still another war between nature 
and culture? The fact that everyone has the same name leads 
inevitably to speculations like this, as though the drama itself, like 
its actors, simply represented a single episode in a sort of mythic 
infinite regress. In addition, the fact that the little shepherd boy still 
sees "Heathcliff and a woman" wandering the moor hints that the 
powerfully disruptive possibilities they represent may some day be 
reincarnated at Wuthering Heights. 

Emily Bronte would consider such reincarnation a consummation 
devoutly to be wished. Though the surface Nelly Dean imposes upon 
Bronte's story is as dispassionately factual as the tone of "The Jaguar's 
Wife," the author's intention is passionately elegiac, as shown by the 
referential structure of Wuthering Heights, Catherine-Heathcliff's 
charisma, and the book's anti-Miltonic messages. This is yet another 
point Charlotte Bronte understood quite well, as we can see not only 
from the feminist mysticism of Shirley but also from the diplomatic 
irony of parts of her preface to Wuthering Heights. In Shirley, after all, 
the first woman, the true Eve, is nature — and she is noble and she is 
lost to all but a few privileged supplicants like Shirley-Emily herself, 
who tells Caroline (in response to an invitation to go to church) that 
"I will stay out here with my mother Eve, in these days called Nature. 
I love her — undying, mighty being! Heaven may have faded from 
her brow when she fell in paradise; but all that is glorious on earth 
shines there still." 71 And several years later Charlotte concluded 
her preface to Wuthering Heights with a discreetly qualified description 
of a literal heath/cliff that might also apply to Shirley's titanic Eve : 



306 How Are We Fal'n? Milton's Daughters 

. . . the crag took human shape; and there it stands, colossal, 
dark, and frowning, half statue, half rock : in the former sense, 
terrible and goblin-like; in the latter, almost beautiful, for its 
coloring is of mellow grey, and moorland moss clothes it; and 
heath, with its blooming bells and balmy fragrance, grows 
faithfully close to the giant's foot. 72 

This grandeur, Charlotte Bronte says, is what "Ellis Bell" was writing 
about; this is what she (rightly) thought we have lost. For like the 
fierce though forgotten seventeenth-century Behmenist mystic Jane 
Lead, Emily Bronte seems to have believed that Eve had become 
tragically separated from her fiery original self, and that therefore 
she had "lost her Virgin Eagle Body . . . and so been sown into a 
slumbering Death, in Folly, Weakness, and Dishonor." 73 

Her slumbering death, however, was one from which Eve might 
still arise. Elegiac as it is, mournfully definitive as its myth of origin 
seems, Wuthering Heights is nevertheless haunted by the ghost of a 
lost gynandry, a primordial possibility of power now only visible to 
children like the ones who see HeathclirT and Catherine. 

No promised Heaven, these wild Desires 
Could all or half fulfil, 
No threatened Hell, with quenchless fire 
Subdue this quenchless will ! 

Emily Bronte declares in one of her poems. 74 The words may or may 
not be intended for a Gondalian speech, but it hardly matters, since 
in any case they characterize the quenchless and sardonically impious 
will that stalks through Wuthering Heights, rattling the windowpanes 
of ancient houses and blotting the pages of family bibles. Exorcised 
from the hereditary estate of the ancient stock, driven to the sinister 
androgyny of their Liebestod, Catherine and Heathchff nevertheless 
linger still at the edge of the estate, as witch and goblin, Eve and 
Satan. Lockwood's two dreams, presented as prologues to Nelly's 
story, are also, then, necessary epilogues to that tale. In the first, 
"Jabes Branderham," Joseph's nightmare fellow, tediously thunders 
Miltonic curses at Lockwood, enumerating the four hundred and 
ninety sins of which erring nature and the quenchless will are guilty. I n 
the second, nature, personified as the wailing witch child "Catherine 



Looking Oppositely: Emily Bronte's Bible of Hell 307 

Linton," rises willfully in protest, and gentlemanly Lockwood's 
unexpectedly violent attack upon her indicates his terrified perception 
of the danger she represents. 

Though she reiterated Milton's misogyny where Bronte struggled 
to subvert it, Mary Shelley also understood the dangerous possibilities 
of the outcast will. Her lost Eve became a monster, but "he" was 
equally destrucdve to the fabric of society. Later in the nineteenth 
century other women writers, battling Milton's bogey, would also 
examine the annihilation with which patriarchy threatens Eve's 
quenchless will, and the witchlike rage with which the female 
responds. George Eliot, for instance, would picture in The Mill on 
the Floss a deadly androgyny that seems like a grotesque parody of the 
Liebestod Heathcliffand Catherine achieve. "In their death" Maggie 
and Tom Tulliver "are not divided" — but the union they achieve 
is the only authentic one Eliot can imagine for them, since in life the 
one became an angel of renunciation, the other a captain of industry. 
Significantly, however, their death is caused by a flood that obliterates 
half the landscape of culture : female nature does and will continue 
to protest. 

If Eliot specifically reinvents Bronte's Liebestod, Mary Elizabeth 
Coleride reimagines her witchlike nature spirit. In a poem that also 
reflects her anxious ambivalence about the influence of her great 
uncle Samuel, the author of "Christabel," Coleridge becomes Geral- 
dine, Catherine Earnshaw, Lucy Gray, even Frankenstein's monster 
— all the wailing outcast females who haunt the graveyards of 
patriarchy. Speaking in "the voice that women have, who plead for 
their heart's desire," she cries 

I have walked a great while over the snow 

And I am not tall nor strong. 

My clothes are wet, and my teeth are set, 

And the way was hard and long. 

I have wandered over the fruitful earth, 

But I never came here before. 

Oh, lift me over the threshhold, and let me in at the door . . . 

And then she reveals that "She came — and the quivering flame / Sank 
and died in the fire." 75 
Emily Bronte's outcast witch-child is fiercer, less dissembling than 



308 How Are We FaTn ? Milton's Daughters 

Coleridge's, but she longs equally for the extinction of parlor fires 
and the rekindling of unimaginably different energies. Her creator, 
too, is finally the fiercest, most quenchless of Milton's daughters. 
Looking oppositely for the queendom of heaven, she insists, like 
Blake, that "I have also the Bible of Hell, which the world shall have 
whether they will or no."'* And in the voice of the wind that sweeps 
through the newly cultivated garden at Wuthering Heights, we can 
hear the jaguar, like Blake's enraged Rintrah, roaring in the distance. 



IV 

The Spectral Selves of 

Charlotte Bronte 




A Secret, Inward Wound : 
The Professor's Pupil 



The strong pulse of Ambition struck 

In every vein I owned; 
At the same instant, bleeding broke 

A secret, inward wound. 

— Charlotte Bronte 

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in 
the story. 

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful 
future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy 
home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another 
fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing 
editor. . . . 

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, 
just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would 
choose. . . . and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to 
wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground 
at my feet. 

—Sylvia Plath 

There is a pain — so utter — 

It swallows substance up — 

Then covers the Abyss with Trance — 

So Memory can step 

Around — across — upon it — 

As one within a Swoon — 

Goes safely — where an open eye — 

Would drop Him — Bone by Bone. 

— Emily Dickinson 

Charlotte Bronte was essentially a trance-writer. "All wondering why 
I write with my eyes shut," she commented in her Roe Head journal, 1 

311 



312 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

and, as Winifred G6rin points out, the irregular lines of her manu- 
scripts indicate that she did write this way, a habit Gerin suggests 
she adopted "intentionally the better to sharpen the inner vision and 
shut out her bodily surroundings." 2 Inner vision: the rhetoric is 
Romantic, and it is Bronte's as much as Gerin's, recalling Words- 
worth's "Trances of thought and mountings of the mind," as well as 
Coleridge's "Close your eyes with holy dread." "All this day," 
Bronte wrote in the same journal, "I have been in a dream half 
miserable and half ecstatic — miserable because I could not follow 
it out uninterruptedly, and ecstatic because it shewed almost in the 
vivid light of reality the ongoings of the infernal world [the childhood 
fantasy world of Angria]." 3 This is assuredly Romantic. And yet, 
we believe, it is distinctively female, too. For though most of Bronte's 
vocabulary and many of her visions derive from the early nineteenth- 
century writers in whose work her mind was steeped — Wordsworth, 
Coleridge, Scott, Byron — the entranced obsessiveness with which 
she worked out recurrent themes and metaphors seems to have been 
determined primarily by her gender, her sense of her difficult sexual 
destiny, and her anxiety about her anomalous, "orphaned" position 
in the world. 

That this was the case is made a little clearer by the following 
passage from the same Roe Head journal entry : 

The parsing lesson was completed. . . . The thought came over 
me am I to spend all the best part of my life in this wretched 
bondage. ... I crept up to the bed-room to be alone for the 
first time that day. Delicious was the sensation I experienced as 
I laid down on the spare bed & resigned myself to the luxury 
of twilight & solitude. The stream of thought, checked all day, 
came flowing free & calm along its channel. . . . the toil of the 
day, succeeded by this moment of divine leisure had acted on 
me like opium & was coiling about me a disturbed but fascinating 
spell such as I never felt before. What I imagined grew morbidly 
vivid. I remember I quite seemed to see with my bodily eyes a 
lady standing in the hall of a gentleman's house as if waiting 
for some one. It was dusk & there was the dim outline of antlers 
with a hat & a rough great-coat upon them. She had a flat 
candle-stick in her hand & seemed coming from the kitchen or 



A Secret, Inward Wound: The Professor 313 

some such place. ... As she waited I most distinctly heard the 
front-door open and saw the soft moonlight disclosed upon the 
lawn outside, and beyond the lawn at a distance I saw a town 

with lights twinkling through the gloaming No more. I 

have not time to work out the vision. At last I became aware of 
a heavy weight laid across me — I knew I was wide awake & 
that it was dark & that moreover the Ladies were now come 
into the room to get their curl-papers. ... I heard them talking 
about me — I wanted to speak, to rise, it was impossible. . . . 
I must get up I thought, and did so with a start. 

The interest of this passage derives in part from the fact that, as 
Gerin remarks, such a confession is "rare in the annals of literature 
for its perception of the actual creative processes at work." 4 But 
surely some of its "morbidly vivid" elements are even more inter- 
esting: the gloomy gentleman's house, with its threateningly sexual 
outlines of antlers and its rough great-coat, the mysterious lady 
standing in the hall, the front-door opening upon inaccessible and 
glamorous distances, and (in a later section) the enigmatic figure of 
the girl Lucy, whose "faded bloom . . . reminded me of one who 
might ... be dead and buried under the . . . sod." 

"I have not time to work out the vision," Bronte notes, complaining 
of "a heavy weight laid across me." Nevertheless, we would argue 
that this is the vision she worked out in most of her novels, a vision 
of an indeterminate, usually female figure (who has often come "from 
the kitchen or some such place") trapped — even buried — in the 
architecture of a patriarchal society, and imagining, dreaming, or 
actually devising escape routes, roads past walls, lawns, antlers, to 
the glittering town outside. In this respect, Bronte's career provides 
a paradigm of the ways in which, as we have suggested, many 
nineteenth-century women wrote obsessively, often in what could be 
(metaphorically) called a state of "trance," about their feelings of 
enclosure in "feminine" roles and patriarchal houses, and wrote, 
too, about their passionate desire to flee such roles or houses. 

Certainly Bronte's Angrian tales use Byronic elements to articulate 
female fantasies of liberation into an exotic "male" landscape. 
Written during the novelist's adolescence — from the time she was 
ten until she was about twenty-two — these stories of the "infernal 



314 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

world" are as Satanically revisionary in their assessment of patri- 
archal Miltonic moral categories as any of Charlotte's sister Emily's 
Gondalian fictions were. But, as we shall show, Charlotte Bronte 
was far more ambivalent than Emily about the dichotomies of 
heaven and hell, angel and monster. Thus her famous "Farewell 
to Angria," written when she was on the verge of The Professor, 
was not just a farewell to juvenile fantasies; it was, more importantly, 
a farewell to the Satanic rebellion that those fantasies embodied. 
Repudiating Angria, Bronte was adopting more elaborate disguises, 
committing herself to an oscillation between overtly "angelic" dogmf. 
and covertly Satanic fury that would mark the whole of her profes- 
sional literary career. On the surface, indeed, she would seem to 
have drastically revised her own revisionary impulses in order to 
follow Carlyle's advice to "Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe." 
Careful readings of all four of her novels suggest, however, that she 
was in a sense reading her Goethe and her Byron simultaneously. 

We shall see, for example, that Jane Eyre parodies both the night- 
mare confessional mode of the gothic genre and the moral didacticism 
of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to tell its distinctively female story of 
enclosure and escape, with a "morbidly vivid" escape dream acted 
out by an apparently "gothic" lunatic who functions as the more 
sedate heroine's double. Similarly, Shirley uses a judicious, author- 
omniscient technique to tell, in the context of a seemingly balanced, 
conservative history of the conflict between male frame-breakers 
and male mill-owners, a "female" tale of the genesis of female 
"starvation." And even Villetle, the most obviously eccentric of 
Bronte's noveb, and thus the one that comes closest to openly pre- 
senting its readers with an alternative female aesthetic, disguises its 
dream narrative of female burial and tentatively imagined resurrec- 
tion in a complex structure of self-denying parables and severe moral 
homilies. Metaphorically speaking, Satan and Gabriel, angel and 
monster, nun and witch, engage in an elaborate dialogue throughout 
its pages, from its deliberately obscure beginning to its consciously 
ambiguous conclusion, as if to distract us from the real point. During 
all this, moreover, Lucy Snowe — the novel's narrator — pretends, like 
Goethe's Makarie, to be a woman with no story of her own except 
that story of repression which gave Makarie (and perhaps Bronte 
after her) such terrible headaches.* 



A Secret, Inward Wound: The Professor 315 

Of course, like so many other women writers, Bronte was not 
always entirely conscious of the extent of her own duplicity — the 
extent, for instance, to which her entranced reveries about escape 
pervaded even her most craftsmanlike attempts at literary decorum. 
In her "Farewell to Angria," for instance, preparing herself to 
master the complexities of the "realistic" Victorian novel, she ex- 
claimed that "I long to quit for a while the burning clime where we 
[she, Branwell, Emily, and Anne] have sojourned too long — its skies 
flame — the glow of sunset is always upon it — the mind would cease 
from excitement and turn now to a cooler region where the dawn 
breaks grey and sober, and the coming day for a time at least is 
subdued by clouds." 6 And yet The Professor (1846, pub. 1857), the 
pseudo-masculine Bildungsroman to which she turned with, in effect, 
eyes wide open, develops several crucial elements of the basic female 
enclosure-escape story. Perhaps more significant, though it appears 
dutifully to trace a traditional, hero-triumphant pattern, it contains 
figures whose characterizations seem as obsessive and involuntary 
as any in the earlier Angrian tales she was repudiating, figures who 
foreshadow the "morbidly vivid" dream actors in such later novels 
as Jane Eyre and Villette: a sensitive, outcast orphan girl; two inex- 
plicably hostile brothers — one tyrannical, the other quietly revolu- 
tionary; a sinister and manipulative "stepmother"; and a Byronic 
ironist whose comments on the action often appear to reflect not 
just his own Romantic disaffection but also the narrator's — and the 
author's — secret, ungovernable rage, a rage which asserts itself the 
minute the novelist closes her eyes and feels again the "heavy weight" 
of her gender laid across her. 



The narrator and the author are more carefully distinguished 
from each other in The Professor than in any of Bronte's other mature 
novels. Moreover, the use of the male narrator, as much as the book's 
"plain and homely" style, suggests an attempt by the female novelist 
to objectify her vision of the story she is telling, to disentangle personal 
fantasies from its plot and cool the "burning clime" of wish-fulfillment. 
For this reason, it is understandable that Winifred Gerin, among 
others, sees the male narrator as "an intrinsic demerit" in the work: 
Charlotte Bronte as William Crimsworth certainly lacks the apparent 



316 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

directness and confessional intensity of Charlotte Bronte as Jane 
Eyre or Charlotte Bronte as Lucy Snowe. 

Curiously, however, even (or perhaps especially) this apparent 
objectivity of The Professor links it to the earlier, more obviously 
"entranced" Angrian tales, for those stories, too, were generally 
told by a male speaker, an "incurably inquisitive" avatar of the 
fledgling author with the significant name of Charles Arthur Florian 
Wellesley. Younger brother to the ambiguously fascinating Zamorna, 
Angria's sultanic/Satanic ruler, this early narrator openly fomented 
revolt against what he considered the insane tyranny of his sibling: 
"Serfs of Angria! Freeman of Verdopolis!" he exclaims in the preface 
to "The Spell, An Extravaganza," written when Bronte was eighteen, 
"I tell you that your tyrant, your Idol is mad ! Yes ! There are black 
veins of utter perversion of intellect born with him and running 
through his whole soul." 7 And while no such accusations are made 
by William Crimsworth, the sober professor, his restrained account 
of his own "ascent of the 'Hill of Difficulty' " indicts his older brother's 
"outrageous peculiarities" even more vigorously, though "rather by 
implication than assertion." 8 

Is there, then, any significant relationship between Bronte's lit- 
erary male-impersonation (both in the Angrian tales and in The 
Professor) and her "female" proclivity for what we have called 
trance-writing? As we have seen, many women working in a male- 
dominated literary tradition at first attempt to resolve the ambi- 
guities of their situation not merely by male mimicry but by some 
kind of metaphorical male impersonation. Similarly, trance-writing 
— in the sense in which we are using the phrase to describe Charlotte 
Bronte's simultaneous enactment and evasion of her own rebellious 
impulses — is clearly an attempt to allay the anxieties of female 
authorship. Beyond the fact that both are ways of resolving literary 
anxieties, however, it seems possible that trance-writing and male 
impersonation have even deeper connections. For one thing, the 
woman writer who may shrink from a consciously female appraisal 
of her female vulnerability in a male society can more easily make 
such an appraisal in her role of male impersonator. That is, by 
pretending to be a man, she can see herself as the crucial and 
powerful Other sees her. More, by impersonating a man she can 
gain male power, not only to punish her own forbidden fantasies 



A Secret, Inward Wound: The Professor 317 

but also to act them out. These things, however, especially the last, 
are also the things she does in her somnambulistic reiteration of a 
duplicitous enclosure-escape story, a story which secretly subverts 
its own ostensible morality. We shall see, though, that infection may 
breed in the trance-writer's dreaming sentences just as surely as it 
does in the sentences of the artist who is more fully conscious of her 
own despair. For the "strong pulse of Ambition" that drives a 
woman to become a professional writer often opens a "secret, in- 
ward wound" whose bleeding necessitates complicated defenses, 
disguises, evasions. 



For all its apparent coolness, The Professor is just such a tissue of 
disguises. Lacking the feverish glow of the Angrian tales, the revolu- 
tionary fervor of Shirley, the gothic and mythic integrity of Jane Eyre 
or Villette, it nevertheless explores the problem of the literally and 
figuratively disinherited female in a patriarchal society and attempts 
(not quite successfully) to resolve the anger and anxiety of its author 
both by examining her situation through sympathetic male eyes and 
by transforming her into a patriarchal male professor, an orphaned 
underling turned master. At the beginning of the book, however, 
William Crimsworth, the narrator/protagonist, is neither master nor 
professor, and in recounting the tale of his struggles up "the Hill of 
Difficulty" Bronte found still a third way of confronting her own, 
distinctively feminine problems. 

The Professor opens awkwardly, with an expository letter from 
Crimsworth to a friend. Although, especially in her late Angrian 
tales, she had handled technical problems of narration — point of 
view, time-scheme, transition — with considerable skill, Bronte seems 
to have felt compelled in her first "real" book to try to master the 
Richardsonian rigors of the epistolary novel. Her attempt, like her 
sister Anne's (in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) or Jane Austen's (in 
Lady Susan), was a failure, and she quickly abandoned the letter- 
mechanism in favor of a more straightforward autobiographical 
structure. But that, like Anne and Austen, she made the effort in 
the first place is notable: Richardson, to whose work she alludes 
several times in The Professor, was an obvious master of prose fiction, 
and — significantly — a master whose images of women had forcefully 



318 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

told his female readers not only what they were but what they ought 
to be. 11 Now, masquerading as Crimsworth, Bronte seemed to want 
to reappraise the exemplary Richardsonian image of the young- 
lady-as-angel. 

In his opening letter, for instance, her narrator informs his corre- 
spondent that he has cut himself off from his dead mother's family 
by rejecting both a career in the church and the possibility of marriage 
with one of his six aristocratic cousins. "How like a nightmare is the 
thought of being bound for life to one of my cousins!" he exclaims, 
adding "No doubt they are accomplished and pretty; but ... to 
think of passing the winter evenings . . . alone with one of them — for 
instance, the large and well-modelled statue, Sarah — no ..." (chap. 
1). Later in the letter he describes himself turning "wearily" from 
his brother Edward's pretty wife, whose soulless and "infantine 
expression" is disagreeable to him — and, we might add, to Bronte 
herself, who was to attack the ideal of the perfect "lady" with similar 
anger in all three of her later novels. 

But at the same time as they signal an intention to reexamine 
culturally accepted images of women, the early parts of Crimsworth 's 
narrative convey an unusually chilling vision of the male world. 
Here, though, Bronte was on more familiar ground : for if Angrian 
women were as a rule extraordinarily independent in comparison 
to the more passive and sardonically drawn ladies who inhabit the 
pages of The Professor, Angrian men were no more unpleasant than 
William Crimsworth's male relatives. Half Byronic heroes and half 
crafty politicians drawn from the young Brontes' readings of contem- 
porary newspapers, Zamorna, the Duke of Northangerland, and 
others seem like exaggerated versions of the "beasdy" Englishmen 
who, Mrs. Sara Ellis explained in the Family Monitor, would turn 
entirely red in tooth and claw without a lady's civilizing touch. 12 
But Crimsworth's mean-spirited uncles are just as beastly. These 
ungentle gentlemen, we learn, repudiated both their sister (for 
marrying the wrong man) and her son William (for not marrying 
the right woman). "I grew up," William tells us, "and heard by 
degrees of the persevering hostility, the hatred till death evinced by 
them against my father — of the sufferings of my mother — of all tb* 
wrongs, in short, of our house" (chap. 1). And the older brother to 
whom he turns for refuge is, significantly, no better than his uncles ; 
indeed, he is in some respects far worse. 



A Secret, Inward Wound: The Professor 319 

Inexplicably hostile and despotic, Edward Crimsworth is a bad- 
tempered Captain of Industry whose petty tyrannies prefigure the 
vicious oppressions of John Reed in Jane Eyre, and whose landscape- 
destroying business, "brooded over" by "a dense permanent vapor," 
looks forward to the dark Satanic mills in Shirley. He beats his horse, 
enslaves his subordinates, and, comments William's friend Yorke 
Hunsden, "will some day be a tyrant to his wife" (chap. 6). As for 
brotherly love, there is no such phrase in the lexicon of his heart. 
"I shall excuse you nothing on the plea of being my brother," he 
tells William. "I expect to have the full value of my money out of 
you" (chap. 2). At the one party to which he invites the young man, 
he introduces him to no one — so that, the narrator tells us, "I looked 
weary, solitary, kept down like some desolate tutor or governess; he 
was satisfied" (chap. 3). Finally, in a violent confrontation, he 
actually takes his whip to his brother. And yet, though he is the 
epitome of patriarchal injustice — the domineering older brother, 
master of Crimsworth Hall and rightful heir of the maternal portrait 
that William really loves — Edward has a tyrannical vigor which, 
Bronte shows, is inevitably rewarded in a society dominated by 
equally "beastly" men: even after his business has failed and he has 
alienated his rich wife with the beatings Yorke Hunsden predicted, 
he ends up "getting richer than Croesus by railway speculations" 
(chap. 25). 

In this world of passive, doll-like women and ferociously over- 
bearing men, Bronte's male narrator plays from the first a curiously 
androgynous part. In his yearnings toward women he is conven- 
tionally masculine. But his judgments of women — his disgust, for 
instance, with the stereotypical doll- woman — suggest that he is at 
the least an unusual male, and his sense of the social unacceptability 
of his own nature qualifies his maleness even further. Similarly, 
although he seems conventionally male in worldly ambition, his 
reserve and almost shrinking passivity — the "equability of [his] 
temper" — are stereotypically female, as is his willingness to let 
himself be "kept down like some . . . governess." More important, 
disinherited and orphaned, as women are in a male society, he is 
powerless like a woman, "wrecked and stranded on the shores of 
commerce" (chap. 4) as Charlotte Bronte felt herself to be when 
her own early attempts at financial independence failed. 

As in Bronte's later novels and in the works of many other women, 



320 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

Crimsworth reacts to his perception of his "female" powerlessness 
first with claustrophobic feelings of enclosure, burial, imprisonment, 
and then with a rebellious decision to escape. "I began to feel like 
a plant growing in humid darkness out of the slimy walls of a well" 
(chap. 4), he confesses, and when he repudiates his commercial 
career after his final quarrel with his brother, he exclaims "I leave 
a prison, I have a tyrant," adding that "I felt light and liberated" 
(chap. 5). As he embarks for Brussels, he utters a paean to "Liberty," 
foreshadowing Jane Eyre's meditations on that subject. "Liberty 
I clasped in my arms for the first time, and the influence of her smile 
and embrace revived my life like the sun and the west wind" (chap. 
7). But his vision of Liberty as a supportive woman suggests that 
the powerless, androgynous Crimsworth, escaping an oppressively 
female role, is on the brink of metamorphosis into a more powerful 
creature, a decidedly male hero-professor. 



As it will be for Lucy Snowe in Villette, the strangeness of Brussels 
is important to William Crimsworth. Awaking in "a wide lofty 
foreign chamber" heightens his feeling of liberation and intensifies 
his sense that he is about to enter into a Vita Nuova. Seeking, like 
Jane Eyre, a new "service," he embarks with surprising masterfulness 
upon his life in M. Pelet's school for boys. What interests him rather 
more than Pelet or his pupils, however, is the "unseen paradise" 
next door: a "Pensionnat de Demoiselles" modelled exactly upon 
the Pensionnat Heger where Charlotte and Emily Bronte studied 
in Brussels. "Pensionnat!" he confides. "The word excited an uneasy 
sensation in my mind; it seemed to speak of restraint" (chap. 7). 
But clearly the word suggests restraint even more to Crimsworth's 
creator than to Crimsworth himself. Indeed, in this middle and 
major section of The Professor which is devoted to the story of his 
career in Brussels, Bronte will use him among other things as a sort 
of lens through which to examine the narrow female world of the 
pensionnat in which she herself was immured for two extraordinarily 
painful years. 

Before he actually visits the girls' school, though, Crimsworth 
becomes oddly obsessed with it. A boarded-up window in his room 



A Secret, Inward Wound: The Professor 321 

overlooks the pensionnat garden next door — boarded-up, M. Pelet 
explains lamely, because "les convenances exigent — " and the young 
teacher, unable to "get a peep at the consecrated ground," confesses 
that "it is astonishing how disappointed I felt." Do his feelings mirror 
Charlotte's own desire to "get a peep" into the "consecrated" realm 
of men? Probably in part. But they also suggest a characteristically 
female desire to comprehend the mysteries of femaleness. Crims- 
worth, like many women novelists, fantasizes becoming a voyeur, a 
scientist of sexual secrets. "I thought it would have been so pleasant 
to have looked out upon a garden planted with flowers and trees, 
so amusing to have watched the demoiselles at their play; to have 
studied female character in a variety of phases, myself the while 
sheltered from view by a modest muslin curtain" (chap. 7). When 
he is finally invited to join the staff of the pensionnat, his ecstatic 
reaction ("I shall now at last see the mysterious garden: I shall 
gaze both on the angels and their Eden") is not just a parody of 
male idealizations of women; it is an expression of Bronte's own 
desire to analyze the walled garden of femininity. 

And analyze she does, with — the phrase seems singularly appro- 
priate — a vengeance. "The idea by which I had been awed," Crims- 
worth explains, as if to reiterate Richardson, "was that the youthful 
beings before me, with their dark nun-like robes and softly-braided 
hair, were a kind of half-angels" (chap. 10). But, he continues in a 
later chapter, "Let the idealists, the dreamers about earthly angels 
and human flowers, just look here while I open my portfolio and 
show them a sketch or two, pencilled after nature" (chap. 12). 
There follows a devastating series of "Characters" (in the seventeenth- 
century sense) describing the immodesty, the impropriety, the sen- 
suality, and the flirtatiousness of the "respectable" Belgian jeunes 
filles at the pensionnat. "Most . . . could lie with audacity. . . . All 
understood the art of speaking fair when a point was to be gained 
. . . back-biting and tale-bearing were universal . . . [and while] 
each and all were supposed to have been reared in utter uncon- 
sciousness of vice ... an air of bold, impudent flirtation, or a loose 
silly leer, was sure to answer the most ordinary glance from a mascu- 
line eye" (chap. 12). 

Because Bronte has taken great pains to establish Crimsworth as 
a sober, idealistic young man, this censoriousness is not out of keeping 



322 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

with his personality. Yet since "his" observations are sanctioned by 
the author herself, their extraordinary bitterness is at first somewhat 
puzzling. Would the old saws about female hostility to other females 
account for such vicious caricatures of schoolgirls whose average age 
is hardly more than fourteen? Or is an explanation to be found in 
Bronte's own English anti-Catholicism? She herself allows Crims- 
worth to offer this as a reason for his feelings, and certainly Bronte's 
attacks on the Catholic church in Villette and elsewhere in The 
Professor suggest that he may be criticizing the students at the 
pensionnat not for being girls but for being Catholic girls. But why, 
then, does he generalize about what he calls "the female character"? 
His position, he indicates, allows him to penetrate aspects of this 
enigma that would be opaque to others: indeed, it soon begins to 
seem that such penetration is the ultimate source of his "mastery." 
"Know, O incredulous reader!" he explains, "that a master stands 
in a somewhat different relation towards a pretty, light-headed, 
probably ignorant girl, to that occupied by a partner at a ball, or 
a gallant on the promenade. A professor does not ... see her dressed 
in satin. ... he finds her in the schoolroom, plainly dressed, with 
books before her" (chap. 14). He sees her, in other words, as she 
really is, preparing in devious and idiosyncratic ways for her female 
role ; sees her in the classroom where she is learning not just the set 
curriculum of the nineteenth-century pensionnat but, more impor- 
tant, the duplicitous stratagems of femininity. Thus, as master of 
the classroom, he is really master of the mystery of female identity. 
He "knows," as other men do not (but as Bronte herself must have 
feared she did) what a female really is. 

And what is she? Though Bronte may not have consciously 
admitted this to herself, through the medium of Crimsworth she 
suggests that a female is a servile and "mentally depraved" creature, 
more slave than angel, more animal than flower. And — the book 
implies, even if Crimsworth/Bronte does not — she is like this because 
it is her task in a patriarchal society to be such a creature. Lying, 
"speaking fair when a point [is] to be gained," tale-bearing, back- 
biting, flirting, leering — all these are, after all, slave traits, ways of 
not submitting while seeming to submit, ways of circumventing 
male power. But they are also, of course, morally "monstrous" 
traits, so that once again the monster-woman emerges from behind 



A Secret, Inward Wound: The Professor 323 

the facade of the angelic lady. It is significant, in view of the links 
between angel and monster she was to examine in Jane Eyre, that 
here in The Professor Bronte reacted with almost excessive horror to 
the characteristics of the female monster/slave. 

Nowhere is her aversion to womanly duplicity more clearly delin- 
eated, for instance, than in Crimsworth's portrait of Zoraide Reuter, 
the directress — and thus in a sense the model female — of the pen- 
sionnat. Bronte had strong personal reasons for painting this woman 
as black as possible. Her original was certainly the hated Madame 
H6ger, who moved so vigorously and with what seemed such sinister 
duplicity to separate the young Englishwoman from M. Heger, her 
own beloved "maitre." 13 And in Madame Beck of Villette Bronte 
was to offer an even darker picture of this woman. Nevertheless, 
beyond the fact of the wounded novelist's undeniable resentment, 
it seems likely that a larger, more philosophical hostility played an 
important part in the creation of Zoraide Reuter. 

At first, however, William Crimsworth has nothing but admiration 
for the "moderate, temperate, tranquil" directress of the pensionnat, 
whom he admires precisely because her character seems to belie 
traditional male images of women (though not, like the characters 
of her students, in a disillusioning way). "Look at this little woman," 
he remarks. "Is she like the women of novelists and romancers? To 
read of female character as depicted in Poetry and Fiction, one 
would think it was made up of sentiment, either for good or bad — 
[but] here is a specimen, and a most sensible and respectable speci- 
men, too, whose staple ingredient is abstract reason" (chap. 10). 
Soon, though, he begins to suspect that Zoraide's reasonableness, 
her moderation and tranquillity, are signs of duplicity, functions of 
a manipulative craftiness which works in secret to subvert the 
abstract reason it dissembles. "Observe her," M. Pelet tells Crims- 
worth, "when she has some knitting, or some other woman's work 
in hand, and sits the image of peace. ... If gentlemen approach 
her chair ... a meeker modesty settles over her features . . . [but] 
observe then her eyebrows, et dites-moi s'il n'y a pas du chat dans 
Pun et du renard dans Pautre" (chap. 11). Clearly Pelet, a suave 
upholder of the status quo, admires such deft hypocrisy. But Crims- 
worth is repelled : is the slavish duplicity of the students patterned 
after the sinister craft of their headmistress ? 



324 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

Another, stronger blow to the young teacher's faith in Zoraide's 
trustworthiness is struck when he overhears her and Pelet discussing 
their forthcoming marriage as they stroll in a "forbidden" alley of 
the pensionnat garden. Zoraide's behavior to Crimsworth has been 
modestly seductive, just the strategy to ensnare this upright young 
man. Yet all the time, he sees, she has been double-dealing, as the 
schoolgirls do. Flirting with the idealism Crimsworth represents, 
she has nevertheless engaged herself to the patriarchal establishment 
embodied in Pelet. A cynical marriage of convenience, a union of 
"notaries and contracts" rather than one of love and honesty, is 
what she apparently contemplates. Bronte's sense of exclusion from 
the businesslike partnership of the Hegers must have contributed to 
Crimsworth 's rage at his discovery, but after a while one begins to 
wonder which came first, jealousy of the H6gers or anger at female 
duplicity ? The "something feverish and fiery" that gets into Crims- 
worth 's veins (chap. 12) seems to manifest sexual nausea as much 
as thwarted passion. 

Significantly, the final blow to Crimsworth's admiration for the 
directress comes when she continues slavishly to woo him, even after 
he has adopted a manner of "hardness and indifference" in his 
dealings with her. Here it is clearest of all that what both Bronte 
and Crimsworth despise in her is her stereotypically female reverence 
for just those "male" characteristics which are most valued in a 
patriarchal society. Indeed, the list of traits to which Zoraide gives 
her "slavish homage" would best describe William's tyrannical older 
brother Edward, that apotheosis of male despotism: "it was . . . her 
tendency to consider pride, hardness, selfishness, as proofs of strength. 
... to violence, injustice, tyranny, she succumbed — they were her 
natural masters" (chap. 15). Considering all this, it is not only 
inevitable that Zoraide must marry the worldly Pelet, but also that 
her antipathy towards any but assumed humility will be most power- 
fully expressed in her wicked stepmotherish treatment of the young 
Swiss-English lacemender Frances Henri, the only character in the 
novel whose true nature does not violate male idealizations of 
femininity in an ironic or offensive way. 

The Professor is as much about Frances Henri as it is about William 
Crimsworth. Indeed, the careers of the two are parallel, as though 



A Secret, Inward W ound: The Professor 325 

each were shaped to echo the other. Like William, Frances is an 
impoverished orphan, a Protestant in a Catholic country, an idealist in 
a materialist society, and finally a self-established success, "Madame 
the Directress," the professional equal of M. le Professeur. The 
differences >n their personalities, however, are as important as the 
similarities, and they result partly from their sexual difference and 
partly from the fact that we experience the "orphanhood" of the 
two characters at different points in the novel. For if in her narration 
of Crimsworth's career Bronte acts out a fantasy about the trans- 
formation of an orphaned and "womanly" man into a magisterial 
professor, in her narration of Frances Henri's career she examines 
from Crimsworth's newly masterful point of view the actual situation 
of an orphaned woman, a situation that was to become the basis for 
more elaborate fantasies in Jane Eyre and Villette. And, interestingly, 
it is the desolation of Frances Henri which completes Crimsworth's 
metamorphosis f ro m outcast to master. 

Pale, small, thin, and "careworn," Frances is the physical type 
of Charlotte Bronte herself, and of such later heroines as Jane Eyre 
and Lucy Snowe. Moreover, like Bronte and Lucy, she occupies 
an anomalous position in the pensionnat. As a lacemender and a 
shy, ineffectual, part-time sewing teacher, she ranks near the bottom 
of the school's hierarchy : a Cinderella who prepares feminine cos- 
tumes for the other young ladies, she has no socially acceptable 
costume herself, an d like the female figure in Bronte's journal, she 
has clearly come "from the kitchen or some such place." Later in 
the novel, indeed, after Zoraide Reuter has fired her from her job 
at the pensionnat, Crimsworth finds Frances wandering through the 
Protestant cemetery at Louvain like "a dusky shade." Mourning 
the death of the aunt who was her only remaining relative, she seems 
also to be mourning her own burial alive, for — pacing back and forth 
the way Jane Eyre will pace at Thornfield — she clearly senses that 
she has been living through a living death, as Lucy Snowe will in 
Villette and as the mysterious Lucy of Bronte's journal did. Moreover, 
she lives (at this point, toward the end of the book) in chilly lodgings 
in the Rue Notre Dame aux Neiges, a real Brussels street whose name 
has symbolic overtones. Even as a student, however, Frances suffers, 
as Bronte must have, from being older and less conventionally 
educated than her classmates. Yet because, like Crimsworth, she is 
intellectual and idealistic, she quickly reveals her superiority, and 



326 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

as that most anomalous of creatures, an openly intelligent woman, 
she incurs the hostility of Mademoiselle Reuter while at the same 
time inspiring the admiration of her idiosyncradc professor. 

But Frances Henri is more than an intelligent woman, an orphaned 
bluestocking. Just as Crimsworth began his career as a misfit in his 
society because his "true nature" was in a sense androgynous, Frances 
is a misfit in her world because, as Crimsworth sees, she is an artist : 
Charlotte Bronte and every other woman writer photographed, as 
it were, in the midst of the creative process. Her compositions first 
excite Crimsworth's interest by the English inflection with which 
their author reads them: hers, he says, "was a voice of Albion" 
(chap. 15). But soon he is even more impressed by the substance of 
her "devoirs," seeing in her work "some proofs of taste and fancy" 
and advising her, rather patronizingly, to "cultivate the faculties 
that God and nature have bestowed on you, and do not fear . . . 
under any pressure of injustice, to derive . . . consolation from the 
consciousness of their strength and rarity." Her triumphant response 
is a smile which shows that the oppressed lacemender is well aware 
of her secret identity. "I am glad," her expression seems to Crimsworth 
to say, that "you have been forced to discover so much of my nature. 
. . . [but] Do you think I am myself a stranger to myself? What you 
tell me in terms so qualified, I have known fully from a child" 
(chap. 16). 

Crimsworth's fears about the "pressure of injustice," his patronizing 
qualifications, and Frances Henri's guarded pride are all of special 
interest in this passage. Injustice, for instance, surrounds the young 
ardst. It is manifest not only in her poverty, her isolation and 
orphanhood, but most strikingly in Zoraide's ever- watchful hostility. 
"Calmly clipping the tassels of her finished purse," the feline directress 
is present even while Crimsworth is complimenting Frances, and — 
we later understand — she is already plotung the lacemender's separa- 
tion from job, school, and master. An agent of patriarchy, Zoraide 
is slavish to men but despotic to women, especially to women who 
are not themselves slavish. 

As for Crimsworth's qualifications, they signal his transformation 
from servant to master, from a male Frances Henri to a sort of 
professorial Edward. In part he himself effects this change out of 
consideration for his pupil. "I perceived that in proportion as my 



A Secret, Inward Wound: The Professor 327 

manner grew austere and magisterial, hers became easy and self- 
possessed" (chap. 17). Though she differs from Zoraide in so many 
ways, Frances seems like Zoraide in desiring male mastery. In part, 
however, the change in Crimsworth occurs because Frances gives his 
"true nature" the recognition no one else has given it. Sensing his 
alienation from the school for duplicity in which they find themselves, 
she encourages him to teach her to cope with the ways of a world 
that punishes integrity and rewards tyranny or slavishness. Para- 
doxically, however, in doing this she substitutes one despotism for 
another. For loving though he is, as Crimsworth becomes an ever 
more moralizing master — and Frances always addresses him as 
"master," even after their marriage — he comes to incarnate a male 
literary tradition that discourages female writers even while it seems 
to encourage integrity, idealism, and Romantic rebellion against 
social hypocrisy. Teaching Frances her art, Crimsworth nevertheless 
punishes her for wilfulness, "begrudges" praise, and later in her life, 
though she has already become a successful teacher herself, "doses" 
her with Wordsworth, whose "deep, serene, and sober mind [and] 
language" are difficult for her to understand, so that "she had to ask 
questions, to sue for explanations, to be like a child and a novice, and 
to acknowledge me as her senior and director" (chap. 25). M 

Because Bronte is writing in a kind of creative trance, the dynamics 
of this master/pupil relationship are not fully worked out in The 
Professor. But perhaps that is for the best. Dreams often tell the 
truth, and the truth told here is ambiguous. Crimsworth, for instance, 
is also Frances's master because, since she is English on her mother's 
side, Swiss on her father's, he speaks her "mother tongue." His own 
matriarchal inclination (another suggestion of his early androgynous 
nature) has been indicated by his attachment to the portrait of his 
dead mother, whose possession he begrudges his brother Edward, 
though he never shows any interest in the portrait of his dead father. 
And certainly, by instructing Frances in the mother tongue she has 
forgotten since her mother's death when she was ten, he gives her her 
true artistic voice — "the voice of Albion" — and hence a place in the 
very tradition from which her dislike of Wordsworth seems to exclude 
her. 15 

The voice of Albion: that voice is raised in a "silvery" female 
register throughout Frances Henri's compositions, and raised to 



328 The Spectral Seises of Charlotte Bronte 

express, in typically female disguise, the outcast artist's secret pride. 
As Crimsworth was at the beginning of The Professor, Frances is "kept 
down" in Brussels "like some desolate tutor or governess." But in the 
lessons and poems she writes for or about her master, she examines 
her own situation, as Bronte herself does in all her novels, and 
fantasizes, alternatively, resignation and escape. The first full-length 
composition we hear about, for instance, is a version of the story of 
King Alfred and the cakes. Beginning with "a description of a Saxon 
peasant's hut, situated within the confines of a great, lifeless, winter 
forest," it vividly portrays the peasant woman's warning to Alfred — 
"Whatever sound you hear, stir not . . . this forest is most wild and 
lonely" — and concludes with a statement of the "crownless king"'s 
bleak faith : "though stripped and crushed by thee ... I do not despair, 
I cannot despair" (chap. 26). No escape routes are charted for Alfred, 
no solutions to his problem imagined, but all the elements of the little 
story are related to motifs which recur obsessively throughout the 
writings of many women. 

The great cold of the wintry forest, for example — a straightforward 
image of desolation and lovelessness — looks forward to the cold of 
Lowood and of the moors in Jane Eyre and is related to the polar cold 
in, say, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Emily Dickinson's poems. 
"The old Saxon ghost legends" foreshadow gothic images in Jane 
Eyre and Villette, and remind us of the monsters inhabiting so many 
other female imaginations. Indeed, the peasant woman's warning 
to Alfred may be seen as, in a sense, symbolic of every woman's 
warning to herself, every woman's attempt to repress her own 
monstrous rage at confinement: "You might chance to hear, as it 
were, a child cry, 16 and on opening the door to afford it succour, a 
great black bull, or a shadowy goblin dog, might rush over the 
threshold. ..." Most important, the dramatic figure of the dis- 
possessed and crownless king, echoing the story of Milton's Satan, 
summarizes once again Frances Henri's — and Charlotte Bronte's — 
appraisal of her own situation in the world. Conscious of the kingdom 
of imagination she has inherited, she is also bitterly aware that she 
has been deprived of her birthright: in a society which encourages 
female servility, she must live, as it were, in the house of a serf. At 
the same time, Alfred's "courage under calamity" reflects Frances's 
own passion for self-determination — "J'ai mon projet," she tells 



A Secret, Inward Wound: The Professor 329 

Crimsworth — and prefigures the quiet defiance implicit in all Bronte's 
later books. 

Frances Henri's next "devoir" is summarized more briefly by 
Crimsworth, but its elements are equally resonant. "An emigrant's 
letter to his friends at home," it describes "the scene of virgin forest 
and great New World river," then hints at "the difficulties and 
dangers that attend a settler's life," as well as his "indestructible 
self-respect" (chap. 28). Crimsworth's qualified support has evidently 
brightened Frances's view of things: where Alfred, locked into the 
serf's hut, had only the grim consolation of self-knowledge, her 
emigrant can at least imagine a New World, an escape from the 
disasters of the past, in which the secret pride of the artist may be 
rewarded. It is surely significant, however, that after Crimsworth 
has praised her for writing this composition Zoraide finally separates 
Frances from her "master". Must the artist's dream of escape be 
ruthlessly repressed by the agents of society? At its most gloomy, The 
Professor suggests as much, and in this connection, Frances Henri's 
final literary achievement — at least the last one we are given in the 
book — is perhaps her most interesting work: it is the poem "Jane," 
which Bronte evidently composed before writing The Professor, about 
her own feelings for M. H6ger. Nevertheless, it was skillfully assim- 
ilated into this fictionalization of their friendship. Arriving at the 
allegorical Rue Notre Dame aux Neiges, with the plan of proposing 
marriage to Frances, Crimsworth overhears her reciting the poem 
as she paces "backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards" 
in her tiny room. So Bronte herself might have wished to be overheard 
by Heger, and of herself, too, she might have written that, as Crim- 
sworth says of Frances, "Solitude might speak thus in a desert, or 
in the hall of a forsaken house." 

Going beyond an exploration of "solitude" to an examination of 
sickness, however, the poem itself tells of "Jane's" — and Frances's 
and Charlotte Bronte's — love for her master: how, seeing her weaken 
under the weight of her school work, he liberates her temporarily 
from "tedious task and rule"; how she "toils" to please him and 
reads the "secret meaning" of his approval in his face; how she wins 
the school-prize, "a laurel-wreath," and how at that moment of 
triumph, as "the strong pulse of Ambition" strikes in her veins, 
"bleeding broke /A secret, inward wound," ostensibly because she 



330 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

realizes that she must now "cross the sea" and be separated from her 
teacher (chap. 23). But if on a literal level "Jane" tells the story of 
Bronte's relationship with Heger (though more perhaps as she wished 
it had been than as it was), figuratively the poem is of interest because 
it exactly depicts Bronte's sense of the pain a woman artist must 
endure, a pain closely related to the profound ambivalence of her 
relationship with her "master." 

It is clearly important, for instance, that Jane becomes aware of 
her "secret, inward wound" not when she realizes she must cross the 
sea but when, as the laurel-crown of art is bound to her "throbbing 
forehead," she feels "the strong pulse of Ambition," perhaps for the 
first time. Is it this pulse — and not the mysterious "they" of the poem 
("They call again; leave then my breast") — which impels her to 
leave her master and cross the sea? In part this seems to be the case. 
But in another sense the pulse of ambition seems itself to be an impulse 
of disease, the harbinger of a wound, or at least a headache. For the 
woman artist, Bronte implies, ambidon can only lead to grief, to 
an inevitable separation from her master — that is, from the literary 
tradition which has fostered her, sometimes praising her efforts and 
sometimes dosing her with Wordsworth — and to a consciousness of 
her own secret sense of inadequacy in comparison to the full adequacy 
and masterfulness of the male world. The bleeding wound is, of 
course, a standard Freudian symbol of femininity, representing both 
the woman's fertility and the apparent imperfection of her body. But 
Bronte expands its meaning so that in "Jane" it symbolizes not only 
female physiology but female psychology, not only the woman's 
bleeding imperfect body but her aching head, her wounded and 
dispossessed imagination. 

Like writers from Anne Finch to Mary Shelley and Emily Bronte, 
Charlotte Bronte is trying to solve the problem of woman's "fall." 
But she goes beyond most in charting the ambiguities of the fall and 
its resultant wound. For while Jane, like, say, the Countess of Winchil- 
sea, suffers from the disease of ambition, she sees the educator who 
has in a sense prepared her fall, not as a culprit, a disinheriting God, 
but as a sheltering foster father, a refuge, a home. "They call again; 
leave then my breast," Frances imagines her master saying at the 
end of the poem. "Quit thy true shelter, Jane; /But when deceived, 
repulsed, opprest, / Come home to me again." And unlike Jane, 



A Secret, Inward Wound: The Professor 331 

whose fate is left to the reader's imagination, Frances does "come 
home" to her master. Paternally setting her on his knee, Crimsworth 
proposes marriage, and when she says "Master, I consent to pass my 
life with you," he approvingly remarks "Very well, Frances," as if 
he were grading one of her compositions. Their subsequent marriage 
and professional success are as charged with ambiguity as everything 
else about their relationship. Though Crimsworth has become wholly 
a professor and patriarch, Frances does refuse to remain entirely 
a dependent pupil. On the one hand, she seems to have abandoned 
her art (we hear of no more "compositions"). But on the other hand, 
she insists upon retaining her "employment of teaching," and it is 
clear that "the strong pulse of Ambition" has not completely deserted 
her. 

After the two have married, the conflict in Frances between "the 
strong pulse of Ambition" and the "secret, inward wound" finds an 
equally ambiguous solution, one which looks backward to Austen's 
duplicitous structures, and forward to the questionable denouements 
of many other novels by women. As Mrs. Crimsworth, she develops 
a sort of schizophrenic personality: "So different was she under 
different circumstances," Crimsworth tells us, that "I seemed to 
possess two wives" (chap. 25). During the day she is Madame the 
Directress, "vigilant and solicitous," with something of the sinister 
authority of Zoraide Reuter. In the evening, however, she becomes 
"Frances Henri, my own little lace-mender," receiving "many a 
punishment" from Monsieur "for her wilfulness." A "good and dear 
wife" to her professor, she nevertheless exhibits barely repressed signs 
of a spirit whose energy Crimsworth encourages only within carefully 
defined limits. 

The issue of Crimsworth's marriage to Frances is a strange child 
named Victor, about whom we learn that there is "a something in 
[his] temper — a kind of electrical ardour and power — which [as 
if to recall the history of Victor Frankenstein] emits now and then 
ominous sparks." The magisterial professor thinks this "something" 
should be "if not whipped out of him, at least soundly disciplined." 
Frances, however, "gives this something in her son's marked character 
no name; but when it appears ... in the fierce revolt of feeling against 



3 32 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

disappointment. . . she folds him to her breast" (chap. 25), for his 
mysterious problem, together with his parents' differing attitudes 
toward it, seems to summarize all the tensions that Bronte, whether 
writing with her eyes open or closed, has been considering throughout 
The Professor. Appropriately enough, therefore, the novel ends with 
an anecdote about Victor, Victor's dog Yorke, and an important 
third personage, Crimsworth's old acquaintance Hunsden Yorke 
Hunsden. This last character has appeared frequently throughout 
the narrative, but his true function is sometimes hard to understand. 
For one thing, he seems at first to have little or no place in the plot 
of the novel. For another, Crimsworth, austere and idealistic, seems 
positively to dislike him, and certainly he has good reasons for doing 
so. The scion of an old, radical-mercantile family, Hunsden is more 
of a disaffected Byronic (or Satanic) hero than any other character 
in The Professor, the very opposite, it seems, of the shy and almost 
girlish Crimsworth. Where Crimsworth is passive, reserved, aris- 
tocratic, Hunsden is a troublemaker; where Crimsworth is idealistic 
and sensitive, Hunsden is cynical ; where Crimsworth is magisterial, 
Hunsden is revolutionary. Neither ever expresses any particular 
affection for the other. And yet the two seem inextricably bound 
together in an uneasy partnership that lasts longer than any other 
relationship in the book. 

Is there any reason for this unfriendly friendship, and why does 
Bronte dramatize it in both the beginning and ending sections of 
The Professor ? What comes close to suggesting an explanation is the 
increasingly obvious parallel between Hunsden's bitterness and (in 
the beginning) Crimsworth's bitterness, between Hunsden's rebel- 
liousness and (later) Frances's or Victor's rebelliousness. Hunsden, 
it begins to seem, incarnates much of the disaffection in The Professor: 
he is an involuntary image — like Charles Wellesley, Zamorna, or the 
Duke of Northangerland — of the anger in Charlotte Bronte's own 
mind. His name, Hunsden Yorke Hunsden, suggests both barbaric 
willingness to overturn established institutions, and a deep affinity 
with the English "motherland" to which Frances Henri and Crim- 
sworth long to return. But besides being an angry "spirit of place," 
Hunsden is a somewhat androgynous figure. Though at first he 
appears "powerful and massive," Crimsworth discovers upon closer 
examination "how small, and even feminine, were his lineaments . . . 



A Secret, Inward Wound: The Professor 333 

[he had] now the mien of a morose bull, and anon that of an arch 
and mischievous girl; more frequently, the two semblances were 
blent, and a queer composite countenance they made" (chap. 4). 
And though he seems contemptuous of William, taking him to task 
for his aristocratic lineage, his appraisal of William's situation is 
clearly the young man's own ("You've no power, you can do 
nothing"), as if his were the voice of the passive clerk's own fury. 
Acting, as William does not, to expose Edward's tyranny, Hunsden 
again acts as William's agent. It is his story of the older Crimsworth's 
misdeeds that precipitates the scene between the brothers which 
leads to William's liberation. His explanation of his action ("I 
followed my instinct, opposed a tyrant, and broke a chain") describes 
what William himself would like to have done. And again, his 
suggestion to the indecisive, jobless clerk ("Go on to the continent") 
is accepted with alacrity ("God knows I should like to go!"), as if 
it betrayed secret knowledge of Crimsworth's own desires. 

In a sense, then, besides being a voice of rebellion, Hunsden is a 
plot-manipulator, a narrator-in-disguise, seeing to it that the action 
proceeds as it should, and commenting on events as they occur. 
Presenting Crimsworth with the lost portrait of his mother, he presents 
him also with a refreshed sense of identity. At the same time, when he 
argues about patriotism with Frances and Crimsworth, his caustic 
views counteract the potential sentimentality implicit in their ideal- 
ization of England, and parodically express the secret disaffection 
in the novel: "Examine the footprints of our august aristocracy; 
see how they walk in blood, crushing hearts as they go" (chap. 24). 
Most interesting of all, his love for the enigmatic Lucia, whose 
portrait he carries with him everywhere, offers Frances (and thus 
Bronte herself) a last chance to fantasize escape from the stifling 
enclosures of patriarchy. 

Studying the ivory miniature on which the picture of Lucia's 
"very handsome and very individual-looking . . . face" is drawn, 
the former lacemaker speculates that "Lucia once wore chains and 
broke them," adding nervously, "I do not mean matrimonial 
chains . . . but social chains of some sort" (chap. 25). Does this story 
contain even a germ of truth? Significantly, we never learn; like 
Hunsden's, Lucia's function in the plot of The Professor is more 
thematic than dramatic, and both Hunsden's and Frances's com- 



334 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

ments about her are important mainly because they represent half- 
repressed desires for rebellion, liberation, escape. Like Bronte herself, 
Hunsden evidently could not bring himself to enact his anger. 
Frances suggests that Lucia "filled a sphere from whence you would 
never have thought of taking a wife," and the "individual-looking" 
woman's image has, we notice, been reduced to a mere miniature. 
Nevertheless, disaffected commentator that he is, Hunsden consis- 
tently speaks rebellion, and if the boy Victor "has a preference" for 
him it is not surprising: fraught as it is with ambiguities, the union of 
Frances Henri and William Crimsworth would inevitably produce 
a child attracted to the dangers and delights of Byronic rebellion. 

By the end of The Professor, however, Crimsworth himself no longer 
feels any attraction to such radicalism. About Lucia's flaming spirit, 
he tells Frances with magisterial irony that "My sight was always too 
weak to endure a blaze," and when Hunsden's namesake, Victor's 
beloved mastiff Vorke, is bitten by a rabid dog, Crimsworth shoots 
his son's pet without delay, though Victor, enraged, points out that 
"He might have been cured" (chap. 25). If the incident does not 
advance the story, it does clarify Bronte's symbolism: Crimsworth 
is anxious not only to kill the dog but to kill what the dog represents. 
Now fully a patriarch and professor, he sees Yorke Hunsden, as well 
as the dog Yorke, as a diseased, rabid element in his life. 17 

Earlier in the novel, however, Crimsworth himself had been 
mysteriously diseased. Even after establishing himself as a professor, 
even (or perhaps especially) after Frances had agreed to be his wife, 
he had suffered from an odd seizure of "hypochondria" in another 
episode which — like Yorke's hydrophobia — did litde to advance the 
plot but much to clarify the symbolism. Personified as a woman, a 
"dreaded and ghastly concubine," Crimsworth's affliction is also, 
like Yorke Hunsden and like Bronte herself, a grim narrator/com- 
mentator. "What tales she would tell me. . . . What songs she would 
recite. . . . How she would discourse to me of her own country — the 

grave. . . . 'Necropolis!' she would whisper 'It contains a mansion 

prepared for you' " (chap. 23). Battling against "the dreadful tyranny 
of my demon," Crimsworth reminds us of the dead-alive Lucy in 
Charlotte's journal, and of Frances Henri buried alive in the Protest- 
ant cemetery or struggling to survive her own bleeding wound. His 
shooting of the dog Yorke seems part of the same battle. Role adjust- 



A Secret, Inward Wound: The Professor 335 

merits for both professor and pupil, Bronte suggests, entail ruthless 
self-repression. 

But to speak of The Professor in terms merely of roles and repressions 
is in a sense to trivialize the young novelist's achievement in her first 
full-length book. For even if this novel is not the judicious, "plain 
and homely" Bildungsroman its author hoped it would be, if its plot 
does not always seem adequate to the complexities of its hidden 
intentions, it is nevertheless of considerable importance as a pre- 
liminary statement of themes which were to be increasingly significant 
throughout Charlotte Bronte's career. Writing with her eyes meta- 
phorically closed, Bronte explored here her own vocation, her own 
wound, and tried — -gropingly, as if in a dream — to discover the 
differing paths to wholeness. The hypochondriacal young Crimsworth 
is, after all, drawn to Frances Henri in the first place because, like 
paler versions of Heathcliffand Catherine, both are misfits. And just 
as Heathcliff's dispossession parallels Catherine's wounding fall, 
Crimsworth's sickness "talks to [Frances's] wound, it corresponds," 
to quote from Sylvia Plath's poem "Tulips." 18 Thus the diseases 
and difficulties of both these crucial characters in Charlotte Bronte's 
first novel correspond to their author's own, paradigmatic female 
wound, even while they also recall many of the afflictions that beset 
Jane Austen's society of invalids. At the same time, however, we must 
observe that, incomplete as they are throughout much of the book, 
both Crimsworth and Frances have struggled (more than most of 
Austen's characters) to find a place where they can be fully themselves. 
Though their literal journeys have been between Switzerland, Bel- 
gium, and England, the real goal of their entranced mutual journey 
has been — as we shall see more clearly in Bronte's other novels — 
not England, that mythic motherland, and not Angria, that feverish 
childhood heaven, but a "true home," a land where wholeness is 
possible for themselves and their creator, a country (to quote from 
"Tulips" again) "as far away as health." 




10 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul ; 
Plain Jane's Progress 



I dreamt that I was looking in a glass when a horrible face — the 
face of an animal — suddenly showed over my shoulder. I cannot 
be sure if this was a dream, or if it happened. 

— Virginia Woolf 

Never mind. . . . One day, quite suddenly, when you're not ex- 
pecting it, I'll take a hammer from the folds of my dark cloak and 
crack your litde skull like an egg-shell. Crack it will go, the egg-shell ; 
out they will stream, the blood, the brains. One day, one day. . . . 
One day the fierce wolf that walks by my side will spring on you 
and rip your abominable guts out. One day, one day. . . . Now, 
now, gently, quietly, quietly. . . . 

— Jean Rhys 

I told my Soul to sing — 

She said her Strings were snapt — 
Her bow — to Atoms blown — 
And so to mend her — gave me work 
Until another Morn — 

— Emily Dickinson 



If The Professor is a somewhat blurred trance-statement of themes 
and conflicts that dominated Charlotte Bronte's thought far more 
than she herself may have realized, Jane Eyre is a work permeated 
by angry, Angrian fantasies of escape-into-wholeness. Borrowing the 
mythic quest-plot — but not the devout substance — of Bunyan's male 
Pilgrim's Progress, the young novelist seems here definitively to have 
opened her eyes to female realities within her and around her: 
confinement, orphanhood, starvation, rage even to madness. Where 

336 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Jane Eyre 337 

the fiery image of Lucia, that energetic woman who probably "once 
wore chains and broke them," is miniaturized in The Professor, in 
Jane Eyre (1847) this figure becomes almost larger than life, the 
emblem of a passionate, barely disguised rebelliousness. 

Victorian critics, no doubt instinctively perceiving the subliminal 
intensity of Bronte's passion, seem to have understood this point 
very well. Her "mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion, and 
rage," Matthew Arnold wrote of Charlotte Bronte in 1853. 1 He was 
referring to Villette, which he elsewhere described as a "hideous, 
undelightful, convulsed, constricted novel," 8 but he might as well 
have been speaking of Jane Eyre, for his response to Bronte was 
typical of the outrage generated in some quarters by her first pub- 
lished novel. 3 "Jane Eyre is throughout the personification of an 
unregenerate and undisciplined spirit," wrote Elizabeth Rigby in 
The Quarterly Review in 1848, and her "autobiography ... is pre- 
eminently an anti-Christian composition. . . . The tone of mind and 
thought which has fostered Chartism and rebellion is the same 
which has also written Jane Eyre."* Anne Mozley, in 1853, recalled 
for The Christian Remembrancer that "Currer Bell" had seemed on 
her first appearance as an author "soured, coarse, and grumbling; 
an alien . . . from society and amenable to none of its laws." 6 And 
Mrs. Oliphant related in 1855 that "Ten years ago we professed an 
orthodox system of novel-making. Our lovers were humble and 
devoted . . . and the only true love worth having was that . . . 
chivalrous true love which consecrated all womankind . . . when 
suddenly, without warning, Jane Eyre stole upon the scene, and the 
most alarming revolution of modern times has followed the invasion 
of Jane Eyre."* 

We tend today to think of Jane Eyre as moral gothic, "myth 
domesticated," Pamela's daughter and Rebecca's aunt, the archetypal 
scenario for all those mildly thrilling romantic encounters between 
a scowling Byronic hero (who owns a gloomy mansion) and a 
trembling heroine (who can't quite figure out the mansion's floor 
plan). Or, if we're more sophisticated, we give Charlotte Bronte her 
due, concede her strategic as well as her mythic abilities, study the 
patterns of her imagery, and count the number of times she addresses 
the reader. But still we overlook the "alarming revolution" — even 
Mrs. Oliphant's terminology is suggestive — which "followed the 



338 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

invasion of Jane Eyre." "Well, obviously Jane Eyre is a feminist tract, 
an argument for the social betterment of governesses and equal 
rights for women," Richard Chase somewhat grudgingly admitted 
in 1948. But like most other modern critics, he believed that the 
novel's power arose from its mythologizing of Jane's confrontation 
with masculine sexuality.' 

Yet, curiously enough, it seems not to have been primarily the 
coarseness and sexuality of Jane Eyre which shocked Victorian re- 
viewers (though they disliked those elements in the book), but, as 
we have seen, its "anti-Christian" refusal to accept the forms, 
customs, and standards of society — in short, its rebellious feminism. 
They were disturbed not so much by the proud Byronic sexual 
energy of Rochester as by the Byronic pride and passion of Jane 
herself, not so much by the asocial sexual vibrations between hero 
and heroine as by the heroine's refusal to submit to her social destiny: 
"She has inherited in fullest measure the worst sin of our fallen 
nature — the sin of pride," declared Miss Rigby. 

Jane Eyre is proud, and therefore she is ungrateful, too. It 
pleased God to make her an orphan, friendless, and penniless — 
yet she thanks nobody, and least of all Him, for the food and 
raiment, the friends, companions, and instructors of her helpless 
youth. . . . On the contrary, she looks upon all that has been 
done for her not only as her undoubted right, but as falling far 
short of it. 8 

In other words, what horrified the Victorians was Jane's anger. 
And perhaps they, rather than more recent critics, were correct in 
their response to the book. For while the mythologizing of repressed 
rage may parallel the mythologizing of repressed sexuality, it is far 
more dangerous to the order of society. The occasional woman who 
has a weakness for black-browed Byronic heroes can be accommo- 
dated in novels and even in some drawing rooms; the woman who 
yearns to escape entirely from drawing rooms and patriarchal man- 
sions obviously cannot. And Jane Eyre, as Matthew Arnold, Miss 
Rigby, Mrs. Mozley, and Mrs. Oliphant suspected, was such a 
woman. 

Her story, providing a pattern for countless others, is — far more 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Jane Eyre 339 

obviously and dramatically than The Professor — a story of enclosure 
and escape, a distinctively female Bildungsroman in which (he prob- 
lems encountered by the protagonist as she struggles from the 
imprisonment of her childhood toward an almost unthinkable goal 
of mature freedom are symptomatic of difficulties Everywoman in a 
patriarchal society must meet and overcome: oppression (at Gates- 
head), starvation (at Lowood), madness (at Thornfield), and cold- 
ness (at Marsh End). Most important, her confrontation, not with 
Rochester but with Rochester's mad wife Bertha, is the book's 
central confrontation, an encounter — like Frances Crimsworth's 
fantasy about Lucia — not with her own sexuality but with her own 
imprisoned "hunger, rebellion, and rage," a secret dialogue of self 
and soul on whose outcome, as we shall see, the novel's plot, Roches- 
ter's fate, and Jane's coming-of-age all depend. 



Unlike many Victorian novels, which begin with elaborate ex- 
pository paragraphs, Jane Eyre begins with a casual, curiously enig- 
matic remark: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." 
Both the occasion ("that day") and the excursion (or the impossi- 
bility of one) are significant: the first is the real beginning of Jane's 
pilgrim's progress toward maturity; the second is a metaphor for the 
problems she must solve in order to attain maturity. "I was glad" 
not to be able to leave the house, the narrator continues: "dreadful 
to me was the coming home in the raw twilight . . . humbled by the 
consciousness of my physical inferiority" (chap. I). 9 As many critics 
have commented, Charlotte Bronte consistently uses the opposed 
properties of fire and ice to characterize Jane's experiences, and her 
technique is immediately evident in these opening passages. 10 For 
while the world outside Gateshead is almost unbearably wintry, 
the world within is claustrophobic, fiery, like ten-year-old Jane's 
own mind. Excluded from the Reed family group in the drawing 
room because she is not a "contented, happy, little child" — excluded, 
that is, from "normal" society — Jane takes refuge in a scarlet-draped 
window seat where she alternately stares out at the "drear November 
day" and reads of polar regions in Bewick's History of British Birds. 
The "death-white realms" of the Arcric fascinate her; she broods 



340 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

upon "the multiplied rigors of extreme cold" as if brooding upon 
her own dilemma : whether to stay in, behind the oppressively scarlet 
curtain, or to go out into the cold of a loveless world. 

Her decision is made for her. She is found by John Reed, the 
tyrannical son of the family, who reminds her of her anomalous 
position in the household, hurls the heavy volume of Bewick at her, 
and arouses her passionate rage. Like a "rat," a "bad animal," a 
"mad cat," she compares him to "Nero, Caligula, etc." and is borne 
away to the red-room, to be imprisoned literally as well as figuratively. 
For "the fact is," confesses the grownup narrator ironically, "I was 
[at that moment] a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself, as 
the French would say. . . . like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved 
... to go all lengths" (chap. I). 

But if Jane was "out of" herself in her struggle against John 
Reed, her experience in the red-room, probably the most metaphor- 
ically vibrant of all her early experiences, forces her deeply into 
herself. For the red-room, stately, chilly, swathed in rich crimson, 
with a great white bed and an easy chair "like a pale throne" 
looming out of the scarlet darkness, perfectly represents her vision 
of the society in which she is trapped, an uneasy and elfin dependent. 
"No jail was ever more secure," she tells us. And no jail, we soon 
learn, was ever more terrifying either, because this is the room 
where Mr. Reed, the only "father" Jane has ever had, "breathed 
his last." It is, in other words, a kind of patriarchal death chamber, 
and here Mrs. Reed still keeps "divers parchments, her jewel-casket, 
and a miniature of her dead husband" in a secret drawer in the 
wardrobe (chap. 2). Is the room haunted, the child wonders. At 
least, the narrator implies, it is realistically if not gothically haunting, 
more so than any chamber in, say, The Mysteries of Udolpho, which 
established a standard for such apartments. For the spirit of a society 
in which Jane has no clear place sharpens the angles of the furniture, 
enlarges the shadows, strengthens the locks on the door. And the 
deathbed of a father who was not really her father emphasizes her 
isolation and vulnerability. 

Panicky, she stares into a "great looking glass," where her own 
image floats toward her, alien and disturbing. "All looked colder 
and darker in that visionary hollow than in reality," the adult Jane 
explains. But a mirror, after all, is also a sort of chamber, a mysterious 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Jane Eyre 341 

enclosure in which images of the self are trapped like "divers parch- 
ments." So the child Jane, though her older self accuses her of mere 
superstition, correcdy recognizes that she is doubly imprisoned. 
Frustrated and angry, she meditates on the injustices of her life, 
and fantasizes "some strange expedient to achieve escape from 
insupportable oppression — as running away, or, if that could not 
be effected, never eating or drinking more, and letting myself die" 
(chap. 2). Escape through flight, or escape through starvation: the 
alternatives will recur throughout Jane Eyre and, indeed, as we have 
already noted, throughout much other nineteenth- and twentieth- 
century literature by women. In the red-room, however, litde Jane 
chooses (or is chosen by) a third, even more terrifying, alternative: 
escape through madness. Seeing a ghostly, wandering light, as of 
the moon on the ceiling, she notices that "my heart beat thick, my 
head grew hot ; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing 
of wings; something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated: 
endurance broke down." The child screams and sobs in anguish, 
and then, adds the narrator coolly, "I suppose I had a species of 
fit," for her next memory is of waking in the nursery "and seeing 
before me a terrible red glare crossed with thick black bars" (chap. 
3), merely the nursery fire of course, but to Jane Eyre the child a 
terrible reminder of the experience she has just had, and to Jane 
Eyre the adult narrator an even more dreadful omen of experiences 
to come. 

For the little drama enacted on "that day" which opens Jane Eyre 
is in itself a paradigm of the larger drama that occupies the enure 
book : Jane's anomalous, orphaned position in society, her enclosure 
in stultifying roles and houses, and her attempts to escape through 
flight, starvation, and — in a sense which will be explained — madness. 
And that Charlotte Bronte quite consciously intended the incident 
of the red-room to serve as a paradigm for the larger plot of her 
novel is clear not only from its position in the narrative but also 
from Jane's own recollection of the experience at crucial moments 
throughout the book: when she is humiliated by Mr. Brocklehurst 
at Lowood, for instance, and on the night when she decides to leave 
Thornfield. In between these moments, moreover, Jane's pilgrimage 
consists of a series of experiences which are, in one way or another, 
variations on the central, red-room modf of enclosure and escape. 



342 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 



As we noted earlier, the allusion to pilgriming is deliberate, for 
like the protagonist of Bunyan's book, Jane Eyre makes a life- 
journey which is a kind of mythical progress from one significantly 
named place to another. Her story begins, quite naturally, at Gates- 
head, a starting point where she encounters the uncomfortable givens 
of her career: a family which is not her real family, a selfish older 
"brother" who tyrannizes over the household like a substitute patri- 
arch, a foolish and wicked "stepmother," and two unpleasant, selfish 
"stepsisters." The smallest, weakest, and plainest child in the house, 
she embarks on her pilgrim's progress as a sullen Cinderella, an 
angry Ugly Duckling, immorally rebellious against the hierarchy 
that oppresses her: "I know that had I been a sanguine, brilliant, 
careless, exacting, handsome, romping child — though equally de- 
pendent and friendless — Mrs. Reed would have endured my presence 
more complacently," she reflects as an adult (chap. 2). 

But the child Jane cannot, as she well knows, be "sanguine and 
brilliant." Cinderella never is; nor is the Ugly Duckling, who, for 
all her swansdown potential, has no great expectations. "Poor, plain, 
and little," Jane Eyre — her name is of course suggestive — is invisible 
as air, the heir to nothing, secretly choking with ire. And Bessie, 
the kind nursemaid who befriends her, sings her a song that no 
fairy godmother would ever dream of singing, a song that summarizes 
the plight of all real Victorian Cinderellas: 

My feet they are sore, and my limbs they are weary, 
Long is the way, and the mountains are wild ; 

Soon will the twilight close moonless and dreary 
Over the path of the poor orphan child. 

A hopeless pilgrimage, Jane's seems, like the sad journey of Words- 
worth's Lucy Gray, seen this time from the inside, by the child 
herself rather than by the sagacious poet to whom years have given 
a philosophic mind. Though she will later watch the maternal moon 
rise to guide her, now she imagines herself wandering in a moonless 
twilight that foreshadows her desperate flight across the moors after 
leaving Thornfield. And the only hope her friend Bessie can offer 
is, ironically, an image that recalls the patriarchal terrors of the 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul : fane Eyre 343 

red-room and hints at patriarchal terrors to come — Lowood, Brockle- 
hurst, St. John Rivers: 

Ev'n should I fall o'er the broken bridge passing, 
Or stray in the marshes, by fake lights beguiled, 

Still will my Father, with promise and blessing 
Take to His bosom the poor orphan child. 

It is no wonder that, confronting such prospects, young Jane finds 
herself "whispering to myself, over and over again" the words of 
Bunyan's Christian: "What shall I do?— What shall I do?" (chap. 
4).» 

What she does do, in desperation, is burst her bonds again and 
again to tell Mrs. Reed what she thinks of her, an extraordinarily 
self-assertive act of which neither a Victorian child nor a Cinderella 
was ever supposed to be capable. Interestingly, her first such explosion 
is intended to remind Mrs. Reed that she, too, is surrounded by 
patriarchal limits : "What would Uncle Reed say to you if he were 
alive?" Jane demands, commenting, "It seemed as if my tongue 
pronounced words without my will consenting to their utterance: 
something spoke out of me over which I had no control" (chap. 4). 
And indeed, even imperious Mrs. Reed appears astonished by these 
words. The explanation, "something spoke out of me," is as fright- 
ening as the arrogance, suggesting the dangerous double conscious- 
ness — "the rushing of wings, something . . . near me" — that brought 
on the fit in the red-room. And when, with a real sense that "an 
invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped- 
for liberty," Jane tells Mrs. Reed that "I am glad you are no relation 
of mine" (chap. 4), the adult narrator remarks that "a ridge of 
lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring, would have been a meet 
emblem of my mind" — as the nursery fire was, flaring behind its 
black grates, and as the flames consuming Thornfield also will be. 

Significantly, the event that inspires little Jane's final fiery words 
to Mrs. Reed is her first encounter with that merciless and hypo- 
critical patriarch Mr. Brocklehurst, who appears now to conduct 
her on the next stage of her pilgrimage. As many readers have 
noticed, this personification of the Victorian superego is — like St. 



344 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

John Rivers, his counterpart in the last third of the book — consistently 
described in phallic terms: he is "a black pillar" with a "grim face 
at the top . . . like a carved mask," almost as if he were a funereal 
and oddly Freudian piece of furniture (chap. 4). But he is also 
rather like the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood." "What a face 
he had. . . . What a great nose! And what a mouth! And what large 
prominent teeth !" Jane Eyre exclaims, recollecting that terror of the 
adult male animal which must have wrung the heart of every female 
child in a period when all men were defined as "beasts." 

Simultaneously, then, a pillar of society and a large bad wolf, 
Mr. Brocklehurst has come with news of hell to remove Jane to 
Lowood, the apdy named school of life where orphan girls are 
starved and frozen into proper Christian submission. Where else 
would a beast take a child but into a wood? Where else would a 
column of frozen spirituality take a homeless orphan but to a sanc- 
tuary where there is neither food nor warmth? Yet "with all its 
privations" Lowood offers Jane a valley of refuge from "the ridge 
of lighted heath," a chance to learn to govern her anger while 
learning to become a governess in the company of a few women 
she admires. 

Foremost among those Jane admires are the noble Miss Temple 
and the pathetic Helen Burns. And again, their names are significant. 
Angelic Miss Temple, for instance, with her marble pallor, is a 
shrine of ladylike virtues: magnanimity, cultivation, courtesy — and 
repression. As if invented by Coventry Patmore or by Mrs. Sarah 
Ellis, that indefatigable writer of conduct books for Victorian girls, 
she dispenses food to the hungry, visits the sick, encourages the 
worthy, and averts her glance from the unworthy. " 'What shall I 
do to gratify myself — to be admired — or to vary the tenor of my 
existence' are not the questions which a woman of right feelings 
asks on first awaking to the avocations of the day," wrote Mrs. 
Ellis in 1844. 

Much more congenial to the highest attributes of woman's 
character are inquiries such as these: "How shall I endeavor 
through this day to turn the time, the health, and the means 
permitted me to enjoy, to the best account? Is any one sick? 
I must visit their chamber without delay. ... Is any one about 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Jane Eyre 345 

to set offon a journey ? I must see that the early meal is spread. . . . 
Did I fail in what was kind or considerate to any of the family 
yesterday? I will meet her this morning with a cordial wel- 
come." 12 

And these questions are obviously the ones Miss Temple asks herself, 
and answers by her actions. 

Yet it is clear enough that she has repressed her own share of 
madness and rage, that there is a potential monster beneath her 
angelic exterior, a "sewer" of fury beneath this temple. 13 Though 
she is, for instance, plainly angered by Mr. Brocklehurst's sancti- 
monious stinginess, she listens to his sermonizing in ladylike silence. 
Her face, Jane remembers, "appeared to be assuming . . . the coldness 
and fixity of [marble] ; especially her mouth, closed as if it would 
have required a sculptor's chisel to open it" (chap. 7). Certainly 
Miss Temple will never allow "something" to speak through her, 
no wings will rush in her head, no fantasies of fiery heath disturb 
her equanimity, but she will feel sympathetic anger. 

Perhaps for this reason, repressed as she is, she is closer to a fairy 
godmother than anyone else Jane has met, closer even to a true 
mother. By the fire in her pretty room, she feeds her starving pupils 
tea and emblematic seedcake, nourishing body and soul together 
despite Mr. Brocklehurst's puritanical dicta. "We feasted," says 
Jane, "as on nectar and ambrosia." But still, Jane adds, "Miss 
Temple had always something ... of state in her mien, of refined 
propriety in her language, which precluded deviation into the ardent, 
the excited, the eager: something which chastened the pleasure of 
those who looked on her and listened to her, by a controlling sense 
of awe" (chap. 8). Rather awful as well as very awesome, Miss 
Temple is not just an angel-in-the-house; to the extent that her 
name defines her, she is even more house than angel, a beaudful 
set of marble columns designed to balance that bad pillar Mr. 
Brocklehurst. And dispossessed Jane, who is not only poor, plain, 
and little, but also fiery and ferocious, correctly guesses that she can 
no more become such a woman than Cinderella can become her 
own fairy godmother. 

Helen Burns, Miss Temple's other disciple, presents a different 
but equally impossible ideal to Jane: the ideal — defined by Goethe's 



346 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

Makarie — of self-renunciation, of all-consuming (and consumptive) 
spirituality. Like Jane "a poor orphan child" ("I have only a father; 
and he . . . will not miss me" [chap. 9]), Helen longs alternately for 
her old home in Northumberland, with its "visionary brook," and 
for the true home which she believes awaits her in heaven. As if 
echoing the last stanzas of Bessie's song, "God is my father, God is 
my friend," she tells Jane, whose skepticism disallows such comforts, 
and "Eternity [is] a mighty home, not a terror and an abyss" 
(chap. 7). One's duty, Helen declares, is to submit to the injustices 
of this life, in expectation of the ultimate justice of the next: "it is 
weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required 
to bear" (chap. 7). 

Helen herself, however, does no more than bear her fate. "I make 
no effort [to be good, in Lowood's terms]," she confesses. "I follow 
as inclination guides me" (chap. 7). Labeled a "slattern" for failing 
to keep her drawers in ladylike order, she meditates on Charles I, 
as if commenting on all inadequate fathers ("what a pity ... he 
could see no farther than the prerogatives of the crown") and studies 
Rasselas, perhaps comparing Dr. Johnson's Happy Valley to the 
unhappy one in which she herself is immured. "One strong proof 
of my wretchedly defective nature," she explains to the admiring 
Jane, "is that even [Miss Temple's] expostulations . . . have no 
influence to cure me of my faults." Despite her contemplative purity, 
there is evidently a "sewer" of concealed resentment in Helen Burns, 
just as there is in Miss Temple. And, like Miss Temple's, her name 
is significant. Burning with spiritual passion, she also burns with 
anger, leaves her things "in shameful disorder," and dreams of 
freedom in eternity : "By dying young, I shall escape great sufferings," 
she explains (chap. 9). Finally, when the "fog-bred pestilence" of 
typhus decimates Lowood, Helen is carried off by her own fever for 
liberty, as if her body, like Jane's mind, were "a ridge of lighted 
heath . . . devouring" the dank valley in which she has been caged. 

This is not to say that Miss Temple and Helen Burns do nothing 
to help Jane come to terms with her fate. Both are in some sense 
mothers for Jane, as Adrienne Rich has pointed out, 14 comforting 
her, counseling her, feeding her, embracing her. And from Miss 
Temple, in particular, the girl learns to achieve "more harmonious 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Jane Eyre 347 

thoughts: what seemed better regulated feelings had become the 
inmates of my mind. I had given in allegiance to duty and order. 
I appeared a disciplined and subdued character" (chap. 10). Yet 
because Jane is an Angrian Cinderella, a Byronic heroine, the 
"inmates" of her mind can no more be regulated by conventional 
Christian wisdom than Manfred's or Childe Harold's thoughts. Thus, 
when Miss Temple leaves Lowood, Jane tells us, "I was left in my 
natural element." Gazing out a window as she had on "that day" 
which opened her story, she yearns for true liberty: "for liberty I 
uttered a prayer." Her way of confronting the world is still the 
Promethean way of fiery rebellion, not Miss Temple's way of ladylike 
repression, not Helen Burns's way of saintly renunciation. What she 
has learned from her two mothers is, at least superficially, to com- 
promise. If pure liberty is impossible, she exclaims, "then . . . grant 
me at least a new servitude" (chap. 10). 



It is, of course, her eagerness for a new servitude that brings Jane 
to the painful experience that is at the center of her pilgrimage, the 
experience of Thornfield, where, biblically, she is to be crowned 
with thorns, she is to be cast out into a desolate field, and most 
important, she is to confront the demon of rage who has haunted 
her since her afternoon in the red-room. Before the appearance of 
Rochester, however, and the intrusion of Bertha, Jane — and her 
readers — must explore Thornfield itself. This gloomy mansion is 
often seen as just another gothic trapping introduced by Charlotte 
Bronte' to make her novel saleable. Yet noi only is Thornfield more 
realistically drawn than, say, Otranto or Udolpho, it is more meta- 
phorically radiant than most gothic mansions: it is the house of 
Jane's fife, its floors and walls the architecture of her experience. 

Beyond the "long cold gallery" where the portraits of alien un- 
known ancestors hang the way the specter of Mr. Reed hovered in 
the red-room, Jane sleeps in a small pretty chamber, harmoniously 
furnished as Miss Temple's training has supposedly furnished her 
own mind. Youthfully optimistic, she notices that her "couch had 
no thorns in it" and trusts that with the help of welcoming Mrs. 
Fairfax "a fairer era of life was beginning for me, one that was to 



348 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

have its flowers and pleasures, as well as its thorns and toils" (chap. 
11). Christian, entering the Palace Beautiful, might have hoped as 
much. 

The equivocal pleasantness of Mrs. Fairfax, however, like the 
ambiguous architecture of Thornfield itself, suggests at once a way 
in which the situation at Thornfield reiterates all the other settings 
of Jane's life. For though Jane assumes at first that Mrs. Fairfax is 
her employer, she soon learns that the woman is merely a housekeeper, 
the surrogate of an absent master, just as Mrs. Reed was a surrogate 
for dead Mr. Reed or immature John Reed, and Miss Temple for 
absent Mr. Brocklehurst. Moreover, in her role as an extension of the 
mysterious Rochester, sweet-faced Mrs. Fairfax herself becomes 
mysteriously chilling. "Too much noise, Grace," she says peremp- 
torily, when she and Jane overhear "Grace Poole's" laugh as they 
tour the third story. "Remember directions!" (chap. 11). 

The third story is the most obviously emblematic quarter of 
Thornfield. Here, amid the furniture of the past, down a narrow 
passage with "two rows of small black doors, all shut, like a corridor 
in some Bluebeard's castle" (chap. 11), Jane first hears the "distinct 
formal mirthless laugh" of mad Bertha, Rochester's secret wife and 
in a sense her own secret self. And just, above this sinister corridor, 
leaning against the picturesque battlements and looking out over 
the world like Bluebeard's bride's sister Anne, Jane is to long again 
for freedom, for "all of incident, life, fire, feeling that I . . . had not 
in my actual existence" (chap. 12). These upper regions, in other 
words, symbolically miniaturize one crucial aspect of the world in 
which she finds herself. Heavily enigmatic, ancestral relics wall her 
in ; inexplicable locked rooms guard a secret which may have some- 
thing to do with her; distant vistas promise an inaccessible but 
enviable life. 

Even more importantly, Thornfield's attic soon becomes a com- 
plex focal point where Jane's own rationality (what she has learned 
from Miss Temple) and her irrationality (her "hunger, rebellion 
and rage") intersect. 18 She never, for instance, articulates her rational 
desire for liberty so well as when she stands on the battlements of 
Thornfield, looking out over the world. However offensive these 
thoughts may have been to Miss Rigby — and both Jane and her 
creator obviously suspected they would be — the sequence of ideas 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Jane Eyre 349 

expressed in the famous passage beginning "Anybody may blame 
me who likes" is as logical as anything in an essay by Wollstonecraft 
or Mill. What is somewhat irrational, though, is the restlessness and 
passion which, as it were, italicize her little meditation on freedom. 
"I could not help it," she explains, 

the restlessness was in my nature, it agitated me to pain some- 
times. Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of 
the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and 
solitude of the spot, and allow my mind's eye to dwell on what- 
ever bright visions rose before it. 

And even more irrational is the experience which accompanies 
Jane's pacing: 

When thus alone, I not unfrequently heard Grace Poole's 
laugh: the same peal, the same low, slow ha! ha! which, when 
first heard, had thrilled me : I heard, too, her eccentric murmurs ; 
stranger than her laugh, [chap. 12] 

Eccentric murmurs that uncannily echo the murmurs of Jane's 
imagination, and a low, slow ha! ha! which forms a bitter refrain 
to the tale Jane's imagination creates. Despite Miss Temple's training, 
the "bad animal" who was first locked up in the red-room is, we 
sense, still lurking somewhere, behind a dark door, waiting for a 
chance to get free. That early consciousness of "something near me" 
has not yet been exorcised. Rather, it has intensified. 



Many of Jane's problems, particularly those which find symbolic 
expression in her experiences in the third story, can be traced to her 
ambiguous status as a governess at Thornfield. As M.Jeanne Peterson 
points out, every Victorian governess received strikingly conflicting 
messages (she was and was not a member of the family, was and 
was not a servant). 14 Such messages all too often caused her features 
to wear what one contemporary observer called "a fixed sad look 
of despair." 17 But Jane's difficulties arise also, as we have seen, from 
her constitutional ire; interestingly, none of the women she meets 
at Thornfield has anything like that last problem, though all surfer 
from equivalent ambiguities of status. Aside from Mrs. Fairfax, the 



350 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

three most important of these women are little Adele Varens, Blanche 
Ingram, and Grace Poole. All are important negative "role-models" 
for Jane, and all suggest problems she must overcome before she can 
reach the independent maturity which is the goal of her pilgrimage. 

The first, Adele, though hardly a woman, is already a "little 
woman," cunning and doll-like, a sort of sketch for Amy March in 
Louisa May Alcott's novel. Ostensibly a poor orphan child, like 
Jane herself, Adele is evidently the natural daughter of Edward 
Rochester's dissipated youth. Accordingly, she longs for fashionable 
gowns rather than for love or freedom, and, the way her mother 
Celine did, sings and dances for her supper as if she were a clockwork 
temptress invented by E. T. A. Hoffman. Where Miss Temple's was 
the way of the lady and Helen's that of the saint, hers and her mother's 
are the ways bf Vanity Fair, ways which have troubled Jane since 
her days at Gateshead. For how is a poor, plain governess to contend 
with a society that rewards beauty and style? May not Adele, the 
daughter of a "fallen woman," be a model female in a world of 
prostitutes? 

Blanche Ingram, also a denizen of Vanity Fair, presents Jane 
with a slightly different female image. Tall, handsome, and well- 
born, she is worldly but, unlike Adele and Celine, has a respectable 
place in the world: she is the daughter of "Baroness Ingram of 
Ingram Park," and — along with Georgiana and Eliza Reed — Jane's 
classically wicked stepsister. But while Georgiana and Eliza are 
dismissed to stereotypical fates, Blanche's history teaches Jane omi- 
nous lessons. First, the charade of "Bridewell" in which she and 
Rochester participate relays a secret message : conventional marriage 
is not only, as the attic implies, a "well" of mystery, it is a Bridewell, 
a prison, like the Bluebeard's corridor of the third story. Second, the 
charade of courtship in which Rochester engages her suggests a grim 
question: is not the game of the marriage "market" a game even 
scheming women are doomed to lose? 

Finally, Grace Poole, the most enigmatic of the women Jane 
meets at Thornfield — "that mystery of mysteries, as I considered 
her" — is obviously associated with Bertha, almost as if, with her 
pint of porter, her "staid and taciturn" demeanor, she were the 
madwoman's public representative. "Only one hour in the twenty 
four did she pass with her fellow servants below," Jane notes, attempt- 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Jane Eyre 35 1 

ing to fathom the dark "pool" of the woman's behavior; "all the 
rest of her time was spent in some low-ceiled, oaken chamber of 
the third story; there she sat and sewed ... as companionless as a 
prisoner in her dungeon" (chap. 17). And that Grace is as companion- 
less as Bertha or Jane herself is undeniably true. Women in Jane's 
world, acting as agents for men, may be the keepers of other women. 
But both keepers and prisoners are bound by the same chains. In 
a sense, then, the mystery of mysteries which Grace Poole suggests 
to Jane is the mystery of her own life, so that to question Grace's 
position at Thornfield is to question her own. 

Interestingly, in trying to puzzle out the secret of Grace Poole, 
Jane at one point speculates that Mr. Rochester may once have 
entertained "tender feelings" for the woman, and when thoughts of 
Grace's "uncomeliness" seem to refute this possibility, she cements 
her bond with Bertha's keeper by reminding herself that, after all, 
"You are not beautiful either, and perhaps Mr. Rochester approves 
you" (chap. 16). Can appearances be trusted? Who is the slave, the 
master or the servant, the prince or Cinderella? What, in other 
words, are the real relationships between the master of Thornfield 
and all these women whose lives revolve around his? None of these 
questions can, of course, be answered without reference to the central 
character of the Thornfield episode, Edward Fairfax Rochester. 



Jane's first meeting with Rochester is a fairytale meeting. Charlotte 
Bronte deliberately stresses mythic elements: an icy twilight setting 
out of Coleridge or Fuseli, a rising moon, a great "lion-like" dog 
gliding through the shadows like "a North-of-England spirit, called 
a 'Gytrash' which . . . haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came 
upon belated travellers," followed by "a tall steed, and on its back 
a rider." Certainly the Romanticized images seem to suggest that 
universe of male sexuality with which Richard Chase thought the 
Brontes were obsessed. 1 * And Rochester, in a "riding-cloak, fur- 
collared, and steel-clasped," with "a dark face . . . stern features and 
a heavy brow" himself appears the very essence of patriarchal energy, 
Cinderella's prince as a middle-aged warrior (chap. 12). Yet what 
are we to think of the fact that the prince's first action is to fall on 
the ice, together with his horse, and exclaim prosaically "What the 



352 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

deuce is to do now?" Clearly the master's mastery is not universal. 
Jane offers help, and Rochester, leaning on her shoulder, admits 
that "necessity compels me to make you useful." Later, remembering 
the scene, he confesses that he too had seen the meeting as a mythic 
one, though from a perspective entirely other than Jane's. "When 
you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I . . . had half a mind to 
demand whether you had bewitched my horse" (chap. 13). Signifi- 
cantly, his playful remark acknowledges her powers just as much as 
(if not more than) her vision of the Gy trash acknowledged his. Thus, 
though in one sense Jane and Rochester begin their relationship as 
master and servant, prince and Cinderella, Mr. B. and Pamela, in 
another they begin as spiritual equals. 

As the episode unfolds, their equality is emphasized in other scenes 
as well. For instance, though Rochester imperiously orders Jane to 
"resume your seat, and answer my questions" while he looks at her 
drawings, his response to the pictures reveals not only his own 
Byronic broodings, but his consciousness of hers. "Those eyes in the 
Evening Star you must have seen in a dream. . . . And who taught 
you to paint wind ?... Where did you see Latmos?" (chap. 13). 
Though such talk would bewilder most of Rochester's other depen- 
dents, it is a breath of life to Jane, who begins to fall in love with 
him not because he is her master but in spite of the fact that he is, 
not because he is princely in manner, but because, being in some 
sense her equal, he is the only qualified critic of her art and soul. 

Their subsequent encounters develop their equality in even more 
complex ways. Rudely urged to entertain Rochester, Jane smiles 
"not a very complacent or submissive smile," obliging her employer 
to explain that "the fact is, once for all, I don't wish to treat you 
like an inferior ... I claim only such superiority as must result from 
twenty years difference in age and a century's advance in experience" 
(chap. 14). Moreover, his long account of his adventure with Celine 
— an account which, incidentally, struck many Victorian readers as 
totally improper, coming from a dissipated older man to a virginal 
young governess 19 — emphasizes, at least superficially, not his supe- 
riority to Jane but his sense of equality with her. Both Jane and 
Charlotte Bronte correctly recognize this point, which subverts those 
Victorian charges: "The ease of his manner," Jane comments, 
"freed me from painful restraint; the friendly frankness . . . with 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul : Jane Eyre 353 

which he treated me, drew me to him. I felt at [these] times as if he 
were my relation rather than my master" (chap. 15 [ital. ours]). For of 
course, despite critical suspicions that Rochester is seducing Jane in 
these scenes, he is, on the contrary, solacing himself with her unse- 
duceable independence in a world of self-marketing Celines and 
Blanches. 

His need for her strength and parity is made clearer soon enough 
— on, for instance, the occasion when she rescues him from his 
burning bed (an almost fatally symbolic plight), and later on the 
occasion when she helps him rescue Richard Mason from the wounds 
inflicted by "Grace Poole." And that these rescues are facilitated by 
Jane's and Rochester's mutual sense of equality is made clearest of 
all in the scene in which only Jane of all the "young ladies" at 
Thornfield fails to be deceived by Rochester in his gypsy costume: 
"With the ladies you must have managed well," she comments, but 
"You did not act the character of a gypsy with me" (chap. 19). 
The implication is that he did not — or could not — because he 
respects "the resolute, wild, free thing looking out of" Jane's eyes 
as much as she herself does, and understands that just as he can see 
beyond her everyday disguise as plain Jane the governess, she can 
see beyond his temporary disguise as a gypsy fortune-teller — or his 
daily disguise as Rochester the master of Thornfield. 

This last point is made again, most explicitly, by the passionate 
avowals of their first betrothal scene. Beginning with similar attempts 
at disguise and deception on Rochester's part ("One can't have too 
much of such a very excellent thing as my beautiful Blanche") that 
encounter causes Jane in a moment of despair and ire to strip away 
her own disguises in her most famous assertion of her own integrity : 

"Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, 
I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much 
soul as you, — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted 
me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should have made 
it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. 
I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, 
conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh: — it is my spirit that 
addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the 
grave, and we stood at God's feet equal, — as we are !" [chap. 23] 



354 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

Rochester's response is another casting away of disguises, a confession 
that he has deceived her about Blanche, and an acknowledgment 
of their parity and similarity: "My bride is here," he admits, "be- 
cause my equal is here, and my likeness." The energy informing both 
speeches is, significantly, not so much sexual as spiritual; the impro- 
priety of its formulation is, as Mrs. Rigby saw, not moral but 
political, for Charlotte Bronte appears here to have imagined a 
world in which the prince and Cinderella are democratically equal, 
Pamela is just as good as Mr. B., master and servant are profoundly 
alike. And to the marriage of such true minds, it seems, no man or 
woman can admit impediment. 



But of course, as we know, there is an impediment, and that 
impediment, paradoxically, pre-exists in both Rochester and Jane, 
despite their avowals of equality. Though Rochester, for instance, 
appears in both the gypsy sequence and the betrothal scene to have 
cast away the disguises that gave him his mastery, it is obviously 
of some importance that those disguises were necessary in the first 
place. Why, Jane herself wonders, does Rochester have to trick 
people, especially women? What secrets are concealed behind the 
charades he enacts? One answer is surely that he himself senses his 
trickery is a source of power, and therefore, in Jane's case at least, 
an evasion of that equality in which he claims to believe. Beyond 
this, however, it is clear that the secrets Rochester is concealing or 
disguising throughout much of the book are themselves in Jane's — 
and Charlotte Bronte's — view secrets of inequality. 

The first of these is suggested both by his name, apparently an 
allusion to the dissolute Earl of Rochester, and by Jane's own 
reference to the Bluebeard's corridor of the third story: it is the 
secret of masculine potency, the secret of male sexual guilt. For, like 
those pre-Byron Byronic heroes the real Restoration Rochester and 
the mythic Bluebeard (indeed, in relation to Jane, like any experi- 
enced adult male), Rochester has specific and "guilty" sexual 
knowledge which makes him in some sense her "superior." Though 
this point may seem to contradict the point made earlier about his 
frankness to Jane, it really should not. Rochester's apparently im- 
proper recounting of his sexual adventures is a kind of acknowledg- 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul : Jane Eyre 355 

ment of Jane's equality with him. His possession of the hidden 
details of sexuality, however — his knowledge, that is, of the secret of 
sex, symbolized both by his doll-like daughter Adele and by the 
locked doors of the third story behind which mad Bertha crouches 
like an animal — qualifies and undermines that equality. And though 
his puzzling transvestism, his attempt to impersonate a. female gypsy, 
may be seen as a semi-conscious effort to reduce this sexual 
advantage his masculinity gives him (by putting on a woman's 
clothes he puts on a woman's weakness), both he and Jane obviously 
recognize the hollowness of such a ruse. The prince is inevitably 
Cinderella's superior, Charlotte Bronte saw, not because his rank is 
higher than hers, but because it is he who will initiate her into the 
mysteries of the flesh. 

That both Jane and Rochester are in some part of themselves 
conscious of the barrier which Rochester's sexual knowledge poses 
to their equality is further indicated by the tensions that develop in 
their relationship after their betrothal. Rochester, having secured 
Jane's love, almost reflexively begins to treat her as an inferior, a 
plaything, a virginal possession — for she has now become his initiate, 
his "mustard-seed," his "little sunny-faced . . . girl-bride." "It is 
your time now, little tyrant," he declares, "but it will be mine 
presently: and when once I have fairly seized you, to have and to 
hold, I'll just — figuratively speaking — attach you to a chain like 
this" (chap. 24). She, sensing his new sense of power, resolves to 
keep him "in reasonable check" : "I never can bear being dressed 
like a doll by Mr. Rochester," she remarks, and, more significantly, 

"I'll not stand you an inch in the stead of a seraglio I'll [prepare 

myself] to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are 
enslaved" (chap. 24). While such assertions have seemed to some 
critics merely the consequences of Jane's (and Charlotte Bronte's) 
sexual panic, it should be clear from their context that, as is usual 
with Jane, they are political rather than sexual statements, attempts 
at finding emotional strength rather than expressions of weakness. 

Finally, Rochester's ultimate secret, the secret that is revealed 
together with the existence of Bertha, the literal impediment to his 
marriage with Jane, is another and perhaps most surprising secret 
of inequality: but this time the hidden facts suggest the master's 
inferiority rather than his superiority. Rochester, Jane learns, after 



356 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

the aborted wedding ceremony, had married Bertha Mason for 
status, for sex, for money, for everything but love and equality. 
"Oh, I have no respect for myself when I think of that act !" he 
confesses. "An agony of inward contempt masters me. I never loved, 
I never esteemed, I did not even know her" (chap. 27). And his 
statement reminds us of Jane's earlier assertion of her own superi- 
ority: "I would scorn such a union [as the loveless one he hints he 
will enter into with Blanche]: therefore I am better than you" 
(chap. 23). In a sense, then, the most serious crime Rochester has 
to expiate is not even the crime of exploiting others but the sin of 
self-exploitation, the sin of Celine and Blanche, to which he, at least, 
had seemed completely immune. 20 



That Rochester's character and life pose in themselves such sub- 
stantial impediments to his marriage with Jane does not mean, 
however, that Jane herself generates none. For one thing, "akin" as 
she is to Rochester, she suspects him of harboring all the secrets we 
know he does harbor, and raises defenses against them, manipulating 
her "master" so as to keep him "in reasonable check." In a larger 
way, moreover, all the charades and masquerades — the secret mes- 
sages — of patriarchy have had their effect upon her. Though she 
loves Rochester the man, Jane has doubts about Rochester the 
husband even before she learns about Bertha. In her world, she 
senses, even the equality of love between true minds leads to the 
inequalities and minor despotisms of marriage. "For a little while," 
she says cynically to Rochester, "you will perhaps be as you are 
now, [but] ... I suppose your love will effervesce in six months, or 
less. I have observed in books written by men, that period assigned 
as the farthest to which a husband's ardor extends" (chap. 24) . He, 
of course, vigorously repudiates this prediction, but his argument — 
"Jane: you please me, and you master me [because] you seem to 
submit" — implies a kind of Lawrentian sexual tension and only 
makes things worse. For when he asks "Why do you smile [at this], 
Jane? What does that inexplicable . . . turn of countenance mean?" 
her peculiar, ironic smile, reminiscent of Bertha's mirthless laugh, 
signals an "involuntary" and subtly hostile thought "of Hercules 
and Samson with their charmers." And that hostility becomes overt 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul : Jane Eyre 357 

at the silk warehouse, where Jane notes that "the more he bought 
me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and 
degradation. ... I thought his smile was such as a sultan might, in 
a blissful and fond moment, bestow on a slave his gold and gems 
had enriched" (chap. 24). 

Jane's whole life-pilgrimage has, of course, prepared her to be 
angry in this way at Rochester's, and society's, concept of marriage. 
Rochester's loving tyranny recalls John Reed's unloving despotism, 
and the erratic nature of Rochester's favors ("in my secret soul I 
knew that his great kindness to me was balanced by unjust severity 
to many others" [chap. 15]) recalls Brocklehurst's hypocrisy. But 
even the dreamlike paintings that Jane produced early in her stay 
at Thornfield — art works which brought her as close to her "master" 
as Helen Graham (in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) was to hers — 
functioned ambiguously, like Helen's, to predict strains in this rela- 
tionship even while they seemed to be conventional Romantic 
fantasies. The first represented a drowned female corpse; the second 
a sort of avenging mother goddess rising (like Bertha Mason Rochester 
or Frankenstein's monster) in "electric travail" (chap. 13); and the 
third a terrible paternal specter carefully designed to recall Milton's 
sinister image of Death. Indeed, this last, says Jane, quoting Paradise 
Lost, delineates "the shape which shape had none," the patriarchal 
shadow implicit even in the Father-hating gloom of hell. 

Given such shadowings and foreshadowings, then, it is no wonder 
that as Jane's anger and fear about her marriage intensify, she 
begins to be symbolically drawn back into her own past, and speci- 
fically to reexperience the dangerous sense of doubleness that had 
begun in the red-room. The first sign that this is happening is the 
powerfully depicted, recurrent dream of a child she begins to have 
as she drifts into a romance with her master. She tells us that she 
was awakened "from companionship with this baby-phantom" on 
the night Bertha attacked Richard Mason, and the next day she is 
literally called back into the past, back to Gateshead to see the 
dying Mrs. Reed, who reminds her again of what she once was and 
potentially still is: "Are you Jane Eyre? ... I declare she talked to 
me once like something mad, or like a fiend" (chap. 21). Even more 
significantly, the phantom-child reappears in two dramatic dreams 
Jane has on the night before her wedding eve, during which she 



358 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

experiences "a strange regretful consciousness of some barrier di- 
viding" her from Rochester. In the first, "burdened" with the small 
wailing creature, she is "following the windings of an unknown 
road" in cold rainy weather, straining to catch up with her future 
husband but unable to reach him. In the second, she is walking 
among the ruins of Thornfield, still carrying "the unknown little 
child" and still following Rochester; as he disappears around "an 
angle in the road," she tells him, "I bent forward to take a last 
look; the wall crumbled; I was shaken; the child rolled from my 
knee, I lost my balance, fell, and woke" (chap. 25). 

What are we to make of these strange dreams, or — as Jane would 
call them — these "presentiments"? To begin with, it seems clear 
that the wailing child who appears in all of them corresponds to 
"the poor orphan child" of Bessie's song at Gateshead, and therefore 
to the child Jane herself, the wailing Cinderella whose pilgrimage 
began in anger and despair. That child's complaint — "My feet they 
are sore, and my limbs they are weary; /Long is the way, and the 
mountains are wild" — is still Jane's, or at least the complaint of 
that part of her which resists a marriage of inequality. And though 
consciously Jane wishes to be rid of the heavy problem her orphan 
self presents, "I might not lay it down anywhere, however tired 
were my arms, however much its weight impeded my progress." 
In other words, until she reaches the goal of her pilgrimage — 
maturity, independence, true equality with Rochester (and therefore 
in a sense with the rest of the world) — she is doomed to carry her 
orphaned alter ego everywhere. The burden of the past cannot be 
sloughed off so easily — not, for instance, by glamorous lovemaking, 
silk dresses, jewelry, a new name. Jane's "strange regretful conscious- 
ness of a barrier" dividing her from Rochester is, thus, a keen though 
disguised intuition of a problem she herself will pose. 

Almost more interesting than the nature of the child image, 
however, is the predictive aspect of the last of the child dreams, the 
one about the ruin of Thornfield. As Jane correcdy foresees, Thorn- 
field will within a year become "a dreary ruin, the retreat of bats 
and owls." Have her own subtle and not-so-subUe hostilities to its 
master any connection with the catastrophe that is to befall the 
house? Is her clairvoyant dream in some sense a vision of wish- 
fulfilment? And why, specifically, is she freed from the burden of 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul : Jane Eyre 359 

the wailing child at the moment she falls from Thornfield's ruined 
wall? 

The answer to all these questions is closely related to events which 
follow upon the child dream. For the apparition of a child in these 
crucial weeks preceding her marriage is only one symptom of a 
dissolution of personality Jane seems to be experiencing at this time, 
a fragmentation of the self comparable to her "syncope" in the 
red-room. Another symptom appears early in the chapter that 
begins, anxiously, "there was no putting off the day that advanced 
— the bridal day" (chap. 25). It is her witty but nervous speculation 
about the nature of "one Jane Rochester, a person whom as yet I 
knew not," though "in yonder closet . . . garments said to be hers 
had already displaced [mine] : for not to me appertained that . . . strange 
wraith-like apparel" (chap. 25 fital. ours]). Again, a third symptom 
appears on the morning of her wedding : she turns toward the mirror 
and sees "a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it 
seemed almost the image of a stranger" (chap. 26), reminding us 
of the moment in the red-room when all had "seemed colder and 
darker in that visionary hollow" of the looking glass "than in reality." 
In view of this frightening series of separations within the self — Jane 
Eyre splitting off from Jane Rochester, the child Jane splitting off 
from the adult Jane, and the image of Jane weirdly separating from 
the body of Jane — it is not surprising that another and most my- 
sterious specter, a sort of "vampyre," should appear in the middle 
of the night to rend and trample the wedding veil of that unknown 
person, Jane Rochester. 

Literally, of course, the nighttime specter is none other than 
Bertha Mason Rochester. But on a figurative and psychological 
level it seems suspiciously clear that the specter of Bertha is still 
another — indeed the most threatening — avatar of Jane. What Bertha 
now does, for instance, is what Jane wants to do. Disliking the "vapoury 
veil" of Jane Rochester, Jane Eyre secredy wants to tear the gar- 
ments up. Bertha does it for her. Fearing the inexorable "bridal 
day," Jane would like to put it off. Bertha does that for her too. 
Resenting the new mastery of Rochester, whom she sees as "dread 
but adored," (ital. ours), she wishes to be his equal in size and 
strength, so that she can battle him in the contest of their marriage. 
Bertha, "a big woman, in stature almost equalling her husband," 



360 The Spectral Selves ofCharlottt Bronte 

has the necessary "virile force" (chap. 26). Bertha, in other words, 
is Jane's truest and darkest double : she is the angry aspect of the 
orphan child, the ferocious secret self Jane has been trying to repress 
ever since her days at Gateshead. For, as Claire Rosenfeld points 
out, "the novelist who consciously or unconsciously exploits psy- 
chological Doubles" frequently juxtaposes "two characters, the one 
representing the socially acceptable or conventional personality, the 
other externalizing the free, uninhibited, often criminal self." 21 

It is only fitting, then, that the existence of this criminal self 
imprisoned in Thornfield's attic is the ultimate legal impediment to 
Jane's and Rochester's marriage, and that its existence is, paradox- 
ically, an impediment raised by Jane as well as by Rochester. For 
it now begins to appear, if it did not earlier, that Bertha has func- 
tioned as Jane's dark double throughout the governess's stay at Thorn- 
field. Specifically, every one of Bertha's appearances — or, more 
accurately, her manifestations — has been associated with an experi- 
ence (or repression) of anger on Jane's part. Jane's feelings of "hunger, 
rebellion, and rage" on the battlements, for instance, were accom- 
panied by Bertha's "low, slow ha! ha!" and "eccentric murmurs." 
Jane's apparently secure response to Rochester's apparently egali- 
tarian sexual confidences was followed by Bertha's attempt to 
incinerate the master in his bed. Jane's unexpressed resentment at 
Rochester's manipulative gypsy-masquerade found expression in 
Bertha's terrible shriek and her even more terrible attack on Richard 
Mason. Jane's anxieties about her marriage, and in particular her 
fears of her own alien "robed and veiled" bridal image, were objecti- 
fied by the image of Bertha in a "white and straight" dress, "whether 
gown, sheet, or shroud I cannot tell." Jane's profound desire to 
destroy Thornfield, the symbol. of Rochester's mastery and of her 
own servitude, will be acted out by Bertha, who burns down the 
house and destroys herself in the process as if she were an agent of 
Jane's desire as well as her own. And finally, Jane's disguised hostility 
to Rochester, summarized in her terrifying prediction to herself that 
"you shall, yourself, pluck out your right eye; yourself cut off your 
right hand" (chap. 27) comes strangely true through the interven- 
tion of Bertha, whose melodramatic death causes Rochester to lose 
both eye and hand. 

These parallels between Jane and Bertha may at first seem some- 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Jane Eyre 361 

what strained. Jane, after all, is poor, plain, little, pale, neat, and 
quiet, while Bertha is rich, large, florid, sensual, and extravagant; 
indeed, she was once even beautiful, somewhat, Rochester notes, 
"in the style of Blanche Ingram." Is she not, then, as many critics 
have suggested, a monitory image rather than a double for Jane? 
As Richard Chase puts it, "May not Bertha, Jane seems to ask 
herself, be a living example of what happens to the woman who 
[tries] to be the fleshly vessel of the [masculine] elan?" 21 "Just as 
[Jane's] instinct for self-preservation saves her from earlier tempta- 
tions," Adrienne Rich remarks, "so it must save her from becoming 
this woman by curbing her imagination at the limits of what is 
bearable for a powerless woman in the England of the 1840s." 23 
Even Rochester himself provides a similar critical appraisal of the 
relationship between the two. "That is my wife" he says, pointing 
to mad Bertha, 

"And this is what I wished to have . . . this young girl who 
stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly 
at the gambols of a demon. I wanted her just as a change after 
that fierce ragout. . . . Compare these clear eyes with the red 
balls yonder — this face with that mask — this form with that 
bulk..'.." [chap. 26] 

And of course, in one sense, the relationship between Jane and 
Bertha is a monitory one: while acting out Jane's secret fantasies, 
Bertha does (to say the least) provide the governess with an example 
of how not to act, teaching her a lesson more salutary than any 
Miss Temple ever taught. 

Nevertheless, it is disturbingly clear from recurrent images in the 
novel that Bertha not only acts for Jane, she also acts like Jane. The 
imprisoned Bertha, running "backwards and forwards" on all fours 
in the attic, for instance, recalls not only Jane the governess, whose 
only relief from mental pain was to pace "backwards and forwards" 
in the third story, but also that "bad animal" who was ten-year-old 
Jane, imprisoned in the red-room, howling and mad. Bertha's 
"goblin appearance" — "half dream, half reality," says Rochester — 
recalls the lover's epithets for Jane: "malicious elf," "sprite," 
"changeling," as well as his playful accusation that she had mag- 
ically downed his horse at their first meeting. Rochester's description 



362 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

of Bertha as a "monster" ("a fearful voyage I had with such a 
monster in the vessel" [chap. 27]) ironically echoes Jane's own fear 
of being a monster ("Am I a monster? ... is it impossible that Mr. 
Rochester should have a sincere affection for me?" [chap. 24]). 
Bertha's fiendish madness recalls Mrs. Reed's remark about Jane 
("she talked to me once like something mad or like a fiend") as well as 
Jane's own estimate of her mental state ("I will hold to the principles 
received by me when I was sane, and not mad — as I am now [chap. 
27]"). And most dramatic of all, Bertha's incendiary tendencies 
recall Jane's early flaming rages, at Lowood and at Gateshead, as 
well as that "ridge of lighted heath" which she herself saw as emble- 
matic of her mind in its rebellion against society. It is only fitting, 
therefore, that, as if to balance the child Jane's terrifying vision of 
herself as an alien figure in the "visionary hollow" of the red-room 
looking glass, the adult Jane first clearly perceives her terrible double 
when Bertha puts on the wedding veil intended for the second Mrs. 
Rochester, and turns to the mirror. At that moment, Jane sees 
"the reflection of the visage and features quite distinctly in the dark 
oblong glass," sees them as if they were her own (chap. 25). 

For despite all the habits of harmony she gained in her years at 
Lowood, we must finally recognize, with Jane herself, that on her 
arrival at Thornfield she only "appeared a disciplined and subdued 
character" [ital. ours]. Crowned with thorns, finding that she is, in 
Emily Dickinson's words, "The Wife — without the Sign," 24 she re- 
presses her rage behind a subdued facade, but her soul's impulse to 
dance "like a Bomb, abroad," to quote Dickinson again, 28 has not been 
exorcised and will not be exorcised until the literal and symbolic 
death of Bertha frees her from the furies that torment her and makes 
possible a marriage of equality — makes possible, that is, wholeness 
within herself. At that point, significantly, when the Bertha in Jane 
falls from the ruined wall of Thornfield and is destroyed, the orphan 
child too, as her dream predicts, will roll from her knee — the burden 
of her past will be lifted — and she will wake. In the meantime, as 
Rochester says, "never was anything at once so frail and so indomi- 
table . . . consider the resolute wild free thing looking out of [Jane's] 
eye. . . . Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it — the savage, 
beautiful creature" (chap. 27). 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Jane Eyre 363 



That the pilgrimage of this "savage, beautiful creature" must now 
necessarily lead her away from Thornfield is signalled, like many 
other events in the novel, by the rising of the moon, which accom- 
panies a reminiscent dream of the red-room. Unjustly imprisoned 
now, as she was then, in one of the traps a patriarchal society 
provides for outcast Cinderellas, Jane realizes that this time she 
must escape through deliberation rather than through madness. 
The maternal moon, admonishing her ("My daughter, flee temp- 
tation!") appears to be "a white human form . . . inclining a glorious 
brow," a strengthening image, as Adrienne Rich suggests, of the 
Great Mother. 26 Yet — "profoundly, imperiously, archetypal" 47 — 
this figure has its ambiguities, just as Jane's own personality does, 
for the last night on which Jane watched such a moon rise was the 
night Bertha attacked Richard Mason, and the juxtaposition of the 
two events on that occasion was almost shockingly suggestive : 

[The moon's] glorious gaze roused me. Awaking in the dead 
of night, I opened my eyes on her disk. ... It was beautiful, 
but too solemn : I half rose, and stretched my arm to draw the 
curtain. 

Good God! What a cry! [chap. 20] 

Now, as Jane herself recognizes, the moon has elicited from her an 
act as violent and self-assertive as Bertha's on that night. "What 
was I?" she thinks, as she steals away from Thornfield. "I had 
injured — wounded — left my master. I was hateful in my own eyes" 
(chap. 28) . Yet, though her escape may seem as morally ambiguous 
as the moon's message, it is necessary for her own self-preservation. 
And soon, like Bertha, she is "crawling forwards on my hands and 
knees, and then again raised to my feet — as eager and determined 
as ever to reach the road." 

Her wanderings on that road are a symbolic summary of those 
wanderings of the poor orphan child which constitute her entire 
life's pilgrimage. For, like Jane's dreams, Bessie's song was an 
uncannily accurate prediction of things to come. "Why did they 
send me so far and so lonely, / Up where the moors spread and grey 



364 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

rocks are piled?" Far and lonely indeed Jane wanders, starving, 
freezing, stumbling, abandoning her few possessions, her name, and 
even her self-respect in her search for a new home. For "men are 
hard-hearted, and kind angels only/Watch'd o'er the steps of a 
poor orphan child." And like the starved wanderings of Hetty Sorel 
in Adam Bede, her terrible journey across the moors suggests the 
essential homelessness — the nameless, placeless, and contingent 
status — of women in a patriarchal society. Yet because Jane, unlike 
Hetty, has an inner strength which her pilgrimage seeks to develop, 
"kind angels" finally do bring her to what is in a sense her true 
home, the house significantly called Marsh End (or Moor House) 
which is to represent the end of her march toward selfhood. Here 
she encounters Diana, Mary, and St. John Rivers, the "good" 
relatives who will help free her from her angry memories of that 
wicked stepfamily the Reeds. And that the Rivers prove to be literally 
her relatives is not, in psychological terms, the strained coincidence 
some readers have suggested. For having left Rochester, having torn 
off the crown of thorns he offered and repudiated the unequal 
charade of marriage he proposed, Jane has now gained the strength 
to begin to discover her real place in the world. St. John helps her 
find a job in a school, and once again she reviews the choices she has 
had: "Is it better, I ask, to be a slave in a fool's paradise at Marseilles 
... or to be a village schoolmistress, free and honest, in a breezy 
mountain nook in the healthy heart of England?" (chap. 31). Her 
unequivocal conclusion that "I was right when I adhered to principle 
and law" is one toward which the whole novel seems to have tended. 
The qualifying word seems is, however, a necessary one. For though 
in one sense Jane's discovery of her family at Marsh End does 
represent the end of her pilgrimage, her progress toward selfhood 
will not be complete until she learns that "principle and law" in 
the abstract do not always coincide with the deepest principles and 
laws of her own being. Her early sense that Miss Temple's teachings 
had merely been superimposed on her native vitality had already 
begun to suggest this to her. But it is through her encounter with 
St. John Rivers that she assimilates this lesson most thoroughly. As 
a number of critics have noticed, all three members of the Rivers 
family have resonant, almost allegorical names. The names of Jane's 
true "sisters," Diana and Mary, notes Adrienne Rich, recall the 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Jane Eyre 365 

Great Mother in her dual aspects of Diana the huntress and Mary 
the virgin mother;* 8 in this way, as well as through their indepen- 
dent, learned, benevolent personalities, they suggest the ideal of 
female strength for which Jane has been searching. St. John, on the 
other hand, has an almost blatantly patriarchal name, one which 
recalls both the masculine abstraction of the gospel according to 
St. John ("in the beginning was the Word") and the disguised mi- 
sogyny of St. John the Baptist, whose patristic and evangelical con- 
tempt for the flesh manifested itself most powerfully in a profound 
contempt for the female. Like Salome, whose rebellion against such 
misogyny Oscar Wilde was later also to associate with the rising 
moon of female power, Jane must symbolically, if not literally, behead 
the abstract principles of this man before she can finally achieve her 
true independence. 

At first, however, it seems that St. John is offering Jane a viable 
alternative to the way of life proposed by Rochester. For where 
Rochester, like his dissolute namesake, ended up appearing to offer 
a life of pleasure, a path of roses (albeit with concealed thorns), and 
a marriage of passion, St. John seems to propose a life of principle, 
a path of thorns (with no concealed roses), and a marriage of 
spirituality. His self-abnegating rejection of the worldly beauty 
Rosamund Oliver — another character with a strikingly resonant 
name — is disconcerting to the passionate and Byronic part of Jane, 
but at least it shows that, unlike hypocritical Brocklehurst, he prac- 
tices what he preaches. And what he preaches is the Carlylean 
sermon of self-actualization through work: "Work while it is called 
today, for the night cometh wherein no man can work." 28 If she 
follows him, Jane realizes, she will substitute a divine Master for the 
master she served at Thornfield, and replace love with labor — for 
"you are formed for labour, not for love," St. John tells her. Yet 
when, long ago at Lowood, she asked for "a new servitude" was 
not some such solution half in her mind ? When, pacing the battle- 
ments at Thornfield she insisted that "women [need] a field for their 
efforts as much as their brothers do" (chap. 12), did she not long 
for some such practical "exercise"? "Still will my Father with 
promise and blessing, / Take to his bosom the poor orphaned child," 
Bessie's song had predicted. Is not Marsh End, then, the promised 
end, and St. John's way the way to His bosom? 



366 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

Jane's early repudiation of the spiritual harmonics offered by 
Helen Burns and Miss Temple is the first hint that, while St. John's 
way will tempt her, she must resist it. That, like Rochester, he is 
"akin" to her is clear. But where Rochester represents the fire of 
her nature, her cousin represents the ice. And while for some women 
ice may "suffice," for Jane, who has struggled all her life, like a 
sane version of Bertha, against the polar cold of a loveless world, 
it clearly will not. As she falls more deeply under St. John's "freezing 
spell," she realizes increasingly that to please him "I must disown 
half my nature." And "as his wife," she reflects, she would be "always 
restrained . . . forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, 
. . . though the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital" (chap. 
34). In fact, as St. John's wife and "the sole helpmate [he] can 
influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death" (chap. 
34), she will be entering into a union even more unequal than that 
proposed by Rochester, a marriage reflecting, once again, her abso- 
lute exclusion from the life of wholeness toward which her pilgrimage 
has been directed. For despite the integrity of principle that distin- 
guishes him from Brocklehurst, despite his likeness to "the warrior 
Greatheart, who guards his pilgrim convoy from the onslaught of 
Apollyon" (chap. 38), St. John is finally, as Brocklehurst was, a 
pillar of patriarchy, "a cold cumbrous column" (chap. 34). But 
where Brocklehurst had removed Jane from the imprisonment of 
Gateshead only to immure her in a dank valley of starvation, and 
even Rochester had tried to make her the "slave of passion," St. 
John wants to imprison the "resolute wild free thing" that is her 
soul in the ultimate cell, the "iron shroud" of principle (chap. 34). 



Though in many ways St. John's attempt to "imprison" Jane may 
seem the most irresistible of all, coming as it does at a time when 
she is congratulating herself on just that adherence to "principle 
and law" which he recommends, she escapes from his fetters more 
easily than she had escaped from either Brocklehurst or Rochester. 
Figuratively speaking, this is a measure of how far she has traveled 
in her pilgrimage toward maturity. Literally, however, her escape 
is facilitated by two events. First, having found what is, despite all 
its ambiguities, her true family, Jane has at last come into her 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Jane Eyre 367 

inheritance. Jane Eyre is now the heir of that uncle in Madeira 
whose first intervention in her life had been, appropriately, to define 
the legal impediment to her marriage with Rochester, now literally 
as well as figuratively an independent woman, free to go her own 
way and follow her own will. But her freedom is also signaled by a 
second event : the death of Bertha. 

Her first "presentiment" of that event comes, dramatically, as an 
answer to a prayer for guidance. St. John is pressing her to reach a 
decision about his proposal of marriage. Believing that "I had now 
put love out of the question, and thought only of duty," she "entreats 
Heaven" to "Show me, show me the path." As always at major 
moments in Jane's life, the room is filled with moonlight, as if to 
remind her that powerful forces are still at work both without and 
within her. And now, because such forces are operating, she at last 
hears — she is receptive to — the bodiless cry of Rochester: "Jane! 
Jane! Jane!" Her response is an immediate act of self-assertion. "I 
broke from St. John. ... It was my time to assume ascendancy. My 
powers were in play and in force" (chap. 35). But her sudden force- 
fulness, like her "presentiment" itself, is the climax of all that has 
gone before. Her' new and apparently telepathic communion with 
Rochester, which many critics have seen as needlessly melodramatic, 
has been made possible by her new independence and Rochester's 
new humility. The plot device of the cry is merely a sign that the 
relationship for which both lovers had always longed is now possible, 
a sign that Jane's metaphoric speech of the first betrothal scene has 
been translated into reality: "my spirit ... addresses your spirit, 
just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's 
feet, equal — as we are!" (chap. 23). For to the marriage of Jane's 
and Rochester's true minds there is now, as Jane unconsciously 
guesses, no impediment. 

Jane's return to Thornfield, her discovery of Bertha's death and 
of the ruin her dream had predicted, her reunion at Ferndean with 
the maimed and blinded Rochester, and their subsequent marriage 
form an essential epilogue to that pilgrimage toward selfhood which 
had in other ways concluded at Marsh End, with Jane's realization 
that she could not marry St. John. At that moment, "the wondrous 



368 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

shock of feeling had come like the earthquake which shook the 
foundations of Paul and Silas' prison ; it had opened the doors of 
the soul's cell, and loosed its bands — it had wakened it out of its 
sleep" (chap. 36). For at that moment she had been irrevocably 
freed from the burden of her past, freed both from the "raging specter 
of Bertha (which had already fallen in fact from the ruined wall of 
Thornfield) and from the self-pitying specter of the orphan child 
(which had symbolically, as in her dream, rolled from her knee). 
And at that moment, again as in her dream, she had wakened to her 
own self, her own needs. Similarly, Rochester, "caged eagle" that 
he seems (chap. 37), has been freed from what was for him the 
burden of Thornfield, though at the same time he appears to have 
been fettered by the injuries he received in attempting to rescue 
Jane's mad double from the flames devouring his house. That his 
"fetters" pose no impediment to a new marriage, that he and Jane 
are now, in reality, equals, is the thesis of the Femdean section. 

Many critics, starting with Richard Chase, have seen Rochester's 
injuries as "a symbolic castration," a punishment for his early 
profligacy and a sign that Charlotte Bronte (as well as Jane herself), 
fearing male sexual power, can only imagine marriage as a union 
with a diminished Samson. "The tempo and energy of the universe 
can be quelled, we see, by a patient, practical woman," notes Chase 
ironically. 80 And there is an element of truth in this idea. The angry 
Bertha in Jane had wanted to punish Rochester, to burn him in his 
bed, destroy his house, cut off his hand and pluck out his overmas- 
tering "full falcon eye." Smiling enigmatically, she had thought of 
"Hercules and Samson, with their charmers." 

It had not been her goal, however, to quell "the tempo and 
energy of the universe," but simply to strengthen herself, to make 
herself an equal of the world Rochester represents. And surely 
another important symbolic point is implied by the lovers' reunion 
at Femdean: when both were physically whole they could not, in 
a sense, see each other because of the social disguises — master/servant, 
prince/Cinderella — blinding them, but now that those disguises have 
been shed, now that they are equals, they can (though one is blind) 
see and speak even beyond the medium of the flesh. Apparently 
sightless, Rochester — in the tradition of blinded Gloucester — now 
sees more clearly than he did when as a "mole-eyed blockhead" 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Jane Eyre 369 

he married Bertha Mason (chap. 27). Apparently mutilated, he is 
paradoxically stronger than he was when he ruled Thornfield, for 
now, like Jane, he draws his powers from within himself, rather 
than from inequity, disguise, deception. Then, at Thornfield, he 
was "no better than the old lightning-struck chestnut tree in the 
orchard," whose ruin foreshadowed the catastrophe of his relation- 
ship with Jane. Now, as Jane tells him, he is "green and vigorous. 
Plants will grow about your roots whether you ask them or not" 
(chap. 37). And now, being equals, he and Jane can afford to 
depend upon each other with no fear of one exploiting the other. 

Nevertheless, despite the optimistic portrait of an egalitarian 
relationship that Bronte seems to be drawing here, there is "a quiet 
autumnal quality" about the scenes at Ferndean, as Robert Bernard 
Martin points out. 31 The house itself , set deep in a dark forest, is 
old and decaying: Rochester had not even thought it suitable for 
the loathsome Bertha, and its valley-of-the-shadow quality makes 
it seem rather like a Lowood, a school of life where Rochester must 
learn those lessons Jane herself absorbed so early. As a dramatic 
setting, moreover, Ferndean is notably stripped and asocial, so that 
the physical isolation of the lovers suggests their spiritual isolation 
in a world where such egalitarian marriages as theirs are rare, if 
not impossible. True minds, Charlotte Bronte seems to be saying, 
must withdraw into a remote forest, a wilderness even, in order to 
circumvent the strictures of a hierarchal society. 

Does Bronte's rebellious feminism — that "irreligious" dissatisfac- 
tion with the social order noted by Miss Rigby and Jane Eyre's 
other Victorian critics — compromise itself in this withdrawal? Has 
Jane exorcised the rage of orphanhood only to retreat from the 
responsibilities her own principles implied? Tentative answers to 
these questions can be derived more easily from The Professor, Shirley, 
and Villetle than from Jane Eyre, for the qualified and even (as in 
VilUtte) indecisive endings of Bronte's other novels suggest that she 
herself was unable clearly to envision viable solutions to the problem 
of patriarchal oppression. In all her books, writing (as we have seen) 
in a sort of trance, she was able to act out that passionate drive 
toward freedom which offended agents of the status quo, but in 
none was she able consciously to define the full meaning of achieved 
freedom — perhaps because no one of her contemporaries, not even 



370 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

a Wollstonecraft or a Mill, could adequately describe a society so 
drastically altered that the matured Jane and Rochester could really 
live in it. 

What Bronte could not logically define, however, she could embody 
in tenuous but suggestive imagery and in her last, perhaps most 
significant redefinitions of Bunyan. Nature in the largest sense seems 
now to be on the side of Jane and Rochester. Ferndean, as its name 
implies, is without artifice — "no flowers, no garden-beds" — but it 
is green as Jane tells Rochester he will be, green and ferny and 
fertilized by soft rains. Here, isolated from society but flourishing in 
a natural order of their own making, Jane and Rochester will become 
physically "bone of [each other's] bone, flesh of [each other's] flesh" 
(chap. 38), and here the healing powers of nature will eventually 
restore the sight of one of Rochester's eyes. Here, in other words, 
nature, unleashed from social restrictions, will do "no miracle — but 
her best" (chap. 35) . For not the Celestial City but a natural paradise, 
the country of Beulah "upon the borders of heaven," where "the 
contract between bride and bridegroom [is] renewed," has all along 
been, we now realize, the goal of Jane's pilgrimage. 32 

As for the Celestial City itself, Charlotte Bronte implies here 
(though she will later have second thoughts) that such a goal is the 
dream of those who accept inequities on earth, one of the many tools 
used by patriarchal society to keep, say, governesses in their "place." 
Because she believes this so deeply, she quite consciously concludes 
Jane Eyre with an allusion to Pilgrim's Progress and with a half-ironic 
apostrophe to that apostle of celestial transcendence, that shadow 
of "the warrior Greatheart," St. John Rivers. "His," she tells us, 
"is the exaction of the apostle, who speaks but for Christ when he 
says — 'Whosoever will come after me, let him deny, himself and 
take up his cross and follow me'" (chap. 38). For it was, finally, to 
repudiate such a crucifying denial of the self that Bronte's "hunger, 
rebellion, and rage" led her to write Jane Eyre in the first place and 
to make it an "irreligious" redefinition, almost a parody, of John 
Bunyan's vision. 33 And the astounding progress toward equality of 
plain Jane Eyre, whom Miss Rigby correctly saw as "the personi- 
fication of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit," answers by its 
outcome the bitter question Emily Dickinson was to ask fifteen years 
later: "'My husband' — women say — /Stroking the Melody — /Is 



A Dialogue of Self and Soul : Jane Eyre 371 

this — the way?'" 34 No, Jane declares in her flight from Thornfield, 
that is not the way. This, she says — this marriage of true minds at 
Ferndean — this is the way. Qualified and isolated as her way may 
be, it is at least an emblem of hope. Certainly Charlotte Bronte was 
never again to indulge in quite such an optimistic imagining. 




The Genesis of Hunger 
According to Shirley 



I was, being human, born alone; 
I am, being woman, hard beset ; 
I live by squeezing from a stone 
The little nourishment I get. 

' — Elinor Wylie 

There is nothing to be said against Charlotte's frenzied efforts to 
counter the nihilism of her surroundings, unless one is among those 
who would find amusement in the sight of the starving fighting for 
food. 

— Rebecca West 

In times of the most extreme symbols 

The walls are very thin. 

Almost transparent. 

Space is accordion pleated ; 

Distance changes. 

But also, the gut becomes one dimensional 

And we starve. 

— Ruth Stone 



Where Jane Eyre has an Angrian intensity that compelled even the 
most hostile of its early readers to recognize its story as radical and 
in some sense "mythic," Charlotte Bronte seems, with Shirley ( 1849), 
to have retreated to the heavier disguises and more intricate evasions 
of The Professor. But while in that first novel she strove for realism 
by literally attempting to impersonate a man — and an austere, 
censorious man at that — in Shirley, as if reacting against the flames 
of rage released in Jane Eyre, she seems at first glance to be trying 

372 



The Genesis of Hunger: Shirley 373 

for objectivity, balance, restraint, by writing a novel of private, 
lonely struggle in an historical setting with public references which 
seem to dictate that her central characters will lose potency and 
withdraw rather than advance as the story unfolds. 

Bronte herself was ambivalent about her use of this narrative 
strategy, and astute contemporary readers — G. H. Lewes for one — 
seem to have perceived her discomfort. "There is no passionate link 
[in Shirley]," Lewes wrote, "nor is there any artistic fusion, or under- 
growth T)y which one part evolves itself from another." 1 While it is 
true that Shirley fails to develop organically, this is at least partially 
because, in trying to create the calm objectivity she associated 
specifically with the magisterial omniscience of a "Titan" like 
Thackeray, Bronte becomes enmeshed in essentially the same male- 
dominated structures that imprison the characters in all her books. 2 
Certainly, in trying to deal historically with a caste denied any 
public existence, Bronte is committed to exploring the distance 
between historical change and the seemingly unrelated, lonely 
struggles of her heroines. When this generic incongruity results in 
a loss of artistic fusion, as Lewes complained, we can see from our 
vantage point that the pain of female confinement is not merely her 
subject in Shirley; it is a measure or aspect of her artistry. 

Significantly, the novel begins with a distinctively male scene, the 
sort of scene Jane Austen, for instance, notoriously refused to write. 
Three clergymen are at a table: complaining that the roast beef is 
tough and the beer flat, they nevertheless swallow enormous quan- 
tities of both, calling for "More bread !" and ordering their landlady 
to "Cut it, woman." 3 They also consume all her vegetables, cheese, 
and spice cake. The voracious curates are not, as many of Bronte's 
critics have claimed, merely a bit of local color, or an irrelevant 
digression. With them commences a novel very much about the 
expensive delicacies of the rich, the eccentric cookery of foreigners, 
the food riots in manufacturing towns, the abundant provisions due 
soldiers, the scanty dinner baskets of child laborers, and the starvation 
of the unemployed. Indeed, the hunger of the exploited links them 
to all those excluded from an independent and successful life in 
English society : one of the workers lucidly explains that "starving 
folk cannot be satisfied or settled folk" (chap. 18). And since, as in 
Jane Eyre, hunger is inextricably linked to rebellion and rage, it is 



374 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

hardly surprising that contemporary reviewers discovered in Shirley 
the female identity of Currer Bell. For, despite its omniscient and 
pseudo-masculine point of view, Charlotte Bronte's third book is far 
more consciously than either of her earlier works a novel about the 
"woman question." Set during the wartime crisis in England's 
depressed mercantile economy of 181 1-12, the novel describes how 
the wrath of the workers does the work of destruction for all those 
exploited, most especially (as our epigraphs imply) for those women 
famished for a sense of purpose in their lives. 

Describing the same hunger that troubles the dispossessed charac- 
ters of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Emily Bronte, Charlotte 
Bronte also implies that women are as famished for food as they are 
for sustaining Actions of their own devising. Therefore, when intro- 
ducing the "unromantic" scene of the greedy curates at the beginning 
of the novel, the narrator explains that "the first dish set upon the 
table should be one that a good Catholic — ay, even an Anglo- 
Catholic — might eat on Good Friday in Passion Week: it shall be 
unleavened bread with bitter herbs, and no roast lamb" (chap. 1). 
Of course, from Fielding to Barth, novelists have set their fictional 
repasts before readers whose palates they have tried to tantalize and 
satiate, but in Shirley Bronte begins with so unappetizing a first 
course because she wants to consider why the curates' feast initiates 
her heroines' fasts. Indeed, in Shirley Bronte portrays not only how 
the hunger of women is, in the words of Dickinson, "a way /Of 
Persons outside Windows — ," but also why "The Entering — takes 
away — " desire (J. 579), since the foods and fictions that sustain men 
are precisely those that have contributed to the sickening of women. 
The word these "Apostolic" curates furnish is one reason why women 
are famished, or so Bronte seems to imply in this feminist critique 
of the biblical myth of the garden. 

We have already seen how Shirley's attack on Milton — "Milton 
was great; but was he good?" — is related to the fictional strategies 
of Bronte's female predecessors. But Bronte is far more pessimistic 
about the results of revisionary poetics, although in Shirley she is 
presumably depicting an Emily Bronte born under happier circum- 
stances. Thus, focusing upon a world already inalterably fallen, she 
suggests that the private broodings of women writers cannot eradicate 
the powerful effect of public myths. During the writing of Shirley, 



The Genesis of Hunger : Shirley 375 

Bronte witnessed the decline and death of Branwell, Emily, and 
Anne, and we sense great despair at her own isolation in a novel 
that attests to her imprisonment within her own narrative structures. 
Like Elizabeth Barrett, who set her postlapsarian "A Drama of 
Exile" (1844) directly outside the locked garden gates, 4 Charlotte 
Bronte studies the self-inflicted punishments of Eve's exiled daughters. 



Since Shirley is about impotence, Bronte had to solve the problem 
of plotting a story about characters defined by their very inability 
to initiate action. As we shall see, every class in this novel has been 
affected by the inability of the English to win their war against 
France. In Yorkshire, the manufacturers, the clergy, and the workers 
suffer because the Orders of Council have cut off the principal 
markets of trade. To underline this point, the book begins with the 
curates called away from their meal to help mill-operator Robert 
Moore, who is waiting for the arrival of machinery that finally 
appears smashed to pieces by the angry workers. Throughout the 
novel, Moore waits, hoping to alter his waning fortunes but unable 
to take any real initiative. Finally he is reduced to the morally 
reprehensible and pitifully ineffective decision not to marry Caroline 
Helstone because she is poor, and instead to propose to Shirley 
Keeldar because she is rich. The novel is centrally concerned with 
these two young women and the inauspicious roles assigned them. 
But while none of the characters can initiate effective action because 
of the contingencies of a costly war abroad, Bronte's heroines are 
so circumscribed by their gender that they cannot act at all. Though 
many readers have cridcized Shirley for a plot which consistently 
calls attention to its own inorganic development, 5 we shall see that 
Bronte deliberately seeks to illustrate the inextricable link between 
sexual discrimination and mercantile capitalism, even as she implies 
that the coercion of a patriarchal society affects and infects each of 
its individual members. With this the case, it is not easy to provide 
or describe escape routes. 

The best of the Yorkshire leaders, those most dedicated to shaping 
their lives through their own exertions, are two men who are bitter 
political enemies. Hiram Yorke, a rebellious blasphemer, rants 
against a land "king-ridden, priest-ridden, peer-ridden" while Mr. 



376 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

Helstone, an ecclesiastic, defends God, king, and "the judgment to 
come" (chap. 4). Each thinks the other damned. They are barely 
on speaking terms, yet they share uncommon personal courage and 
honesty. Yorke's democratic and blunt generosity is as admirable 
as Helstone's loyal fearlessness. Whig and Tory, manufacturer and 
clergyman, family man and childless widower, one a wealthy land- 
owner and the other comfortably well-off from a clerical living, 
these two pillars of the community remain unaffected by the poverty 
and bankruptcy of their neighbors. Moreover, secure about their 
future, representative of the best in their society, they share a common 
past, for early in the novel we discover that they were rivals in their 
youth for "a girl with the face of a Madonna; a girl of living marble; 
stillness personified" (chap. 4). 

This "monumental angel" is ominously named Mary Cave, re- 
minding us of the parables of the cave that spell out how females 
have been entrapped in immanence, robbed of all but secondary 
arts and of their matriarchal genealogy. Indeed, because she was a 
kind of angel of death, Mary Cave was completely ignored by her 
clergyman-husband. We are told that, belonging as she did to "an 
inferior order of existence," she was evidently no companion for 
Mr. Helstone, and we learn that, after a year or two of marriage, 
she died, leaving behind a "still beautiful-featured mould of clay . . . 
cold and white" (chap. 4). Marriage to Yorke, we later learn, would 
also have led to her suffering, for neither of these men respects or 
likes the female sex, Helstone preferring women as silly as possible, 
and Yorke choosing a morose, tyrannical wife to breed and rear 
his brood. Even the noblest patriarchs are obsessed with delusive 
and contradictory images of women, Bronte implies, images perni- 
cious enough to cause Mary Cave's death. She is therefore an 
emblem, a warning that the fate of women inhabiting a male- 
controlled society involves suicidal self-renunciation. 

Understandably, then, she haunts the imagination of Caroline 
Helstone, who has taken her place in her uncle's house, where she 
too lives invisibly. Unable to remember her mother, Caroline seems 
as vulnerable and lonely as her aunt had been. But her life with 
Helstone is at least calmer than her past existence with her father, 
who had shut her up day and night, unattended, in an unfurnished 
garret room where "she waited for his return knowing drink would 



The Genesis of Hunger: Shirley 377 

make him a madman or senseless idiot" (chap. 7). Helstone, at 
least, merely ignores her, always supplying adequate physical sur- 
roundings. And she can visit her cousins, the Moores, until her 
uncle's political feuding, coupled with Robert's rejection of her, 
makes these visits impossible. 

Caroline's escape into the Moore household is by no means a 
liberation, however, since she is tortured by her cousin Hortense as 
she is initiated into the "duties of women," which consist of gram- 
matical problems in French, incessant sewing, and eye-straining 
stocking-mending, inflicted because Hortense is convinced that this 
decorous girl is "not sufficiently girlish and submissive" (chap. 5). 
And certainly, although she seems exceptionally docile, Caroline 
does know her own mind; she knows, for instance, that she loves 
Robert Moore. Although demure and neat, moreover, she criticizes 
Robert's cruelty toward the workers and tries to teach him the evils 
of pride, drawing lessons from Coriolanus. Perhaps because of the 
examples of Mary Cave and of her own father, Caroline also knows 
from the first that she would be better off if she were able to earn 
her own living. Realizing that her cousin is dedicated to getting and 
spending, so much so that he will not allow himself to marry a 
portionless girl, she has little difficulty interpreting his mere glance, 
distant and cousinly, as a rejection of her. 

As a female who has loved without being asked to love, therefore, 
Caroline is chastized by the narrator. Spurned, she is admonished 
to "ask no questions; utter no remonstrances" (chap. 7). The narra- 
tor's comments are pitiless, couched in all the imagery that has 
developed around the opposition of food and stone, as well as the 
necessity of self-enclosure and self-containment for women : 

Take the matter as you find it; ask no questions; utter no 
remonstrances: it is your best wisdom. You expected bread, 
and you have got a stone; break your teeth on it, and don't 
shriek because the nerves are martyrised: do not doubt that 
your mental stomach — if you have such a thing — is strong as 
an ostrich's: the stone will digest. You held out your hand for 
an egg, and fate put into it a scorpion. Show no consternation: 
close your fingers firmly upon the gift; let it sting through your 
palm. Never mind: in time, after your hand and arm have 



378 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

swelled and quivered long with torture, the squeezed scorpion 
will die, and you will have learned the great lesson how to 
endure without a sob. For the whole remnant of your life, if 
you survive the test — some, it is said, die under it — you will 
be stronger, wiser, less sensitive, [chap. 7] 

Infection is surely breeding in these sentences spoken by the voice 
of repression we might associate with Nelly Dean or Zoraide Reuter, 
for the assurance that "the stone will digest" or "the squeezed 
scorpion will die" is contradicted not only by the images themselves, 
but also by the grotesque transubstantiation from bread to stone, 
from egg to scorpion, which is prescribed as a suitable punishment 
for someone "guilty" of loving. Like the ballad heroine of Puir Mary 
Lee, Caroline can only withdraw into her imprisonment with the 
ambiguous solace that comes of being hidden : 

And smoor me up in the snaw fu' fast, 
And ne'er let the sun me see ! 

Oh, never melt awa' thou wreath o' snaw 

That's sae kind in graving me ; [chap. 7] 

One of the damned, brought from Miltonic "Beds of raging Fire to 
starve in Ice," Caroline is plagued with "pining and palsying facul- 
ties," because "Winter seemed conquering her spring; the mind's 
soil and its treasures were freezing gradually to barren stagnation" 
(chap. 10). Withdrawing first into her room and then, more danger- 
ously, into herself until she begins literally to disappear from lack 
of food, Caroline Heljstone is obsessed with a "deep, secret, anxious 
yearning to discover and know her mother" (chap. 11). But as a 
motherless girl she is helpless against male rejection, and so she 
follows the example set by Mary Cave : standing in shadows, shrinking 
into the concealment of her own mind, she too becomes "a mere 
white mould, or rigid piece of statuary" (chap. 24). 

As a ghost of herself, however, Caroline has nothing left but to 
attempt the rites and duties of the lady at her uncle's tea table and 
Sunday school. To emphasize this fact, the first scene after Robert's 
look of rejection pictures Caroline tending the jews-basket, "that 
awful incubus" (chap. 7), while entertaining the community's para- 
gons of propriety in her uncle's parlor. Wearied by such pointless 



The Genesis of Hunger : Shirley 379 

activity, tired of the lethargy caused by the tasteless rattle of the 
piano and the interminable gossip, Caroline retreats to a quieter 
room only to be caught unexpectedly in a meeting with Robert. 
There is something foreboding in her warning that his harshness to 
the mill laborers will lead to his own destruction. She wants him 
to know "how the people of this country bear malice: it is the boast 
of some of them that they can keep a stone in their pocket seven 
years, turn it at the end of that time, keep it seven years longer, and 
hurl it and hit their mark at last" (chap. 7). The man who offers 
stones instead of bread in return for the woman's love will receive 
as his punishment the rocks and stones cast by the other victims of 
his competitive egotism, the workers. 

That Robert can offer Caroline nothing but stones becomes even 
clearer when we learn that he is himself "a living sepulchre" dedi- 
cated to trade (chap. 8), and that he feels as if "sealed in a rock" 
(chap. 9). Caroline recognizes the hardness in him that allows him 
to believe and act as if he and all men should be the free masters 
of their own and society's future. Priding himself on his own exertions, 
on work and self-reliance, Robert embodies the faith of English 
tradesmen and shopkeepers who view all activity except business 
as "eating the bread of idleness" (chap. 10). Given this credo, he 
necessarily despises women; but he also condescends to his own 
workers. With nothing but his own economic interests to guide him, 
moreover, he even opposes the continuation of a war that he knows 
must be fought to insure British liberty. Thus Bronte implies through 
him and the other manufacturers that the work ethic of self-help 
means selfishness and sexism, and, linking the exploitation of the 
workers with the unemployment of women, she further indicates 
that the acquisitive mentality that treats both women and workers 
as property is directly related to disrespect for the natural resources 
of the nation. 

While Robert Moore is quite sure of his course of action, however 
— a revengeful attempt to exert control over his mill, the wares in 
it, his workers, and his women — Caroline must study the "knotty" 
problem of life (chap. 7). "Where is my place in the world?" is the 
question she is puzzled to solve (chap. 10). Curbing her remem- 
brances of a romantic past, forcing herself to return to her present 
lonely condition, she tries to replace visions of feeding Moore berries 



380 The Spectral Selves of CharlotU Bronte 

and nuts in Nunnely Wood with a clear-sighted recognition of her 
own narrow chamber; instead of the songs of birds, she listens to 
the rain on her casement and watches her own dim shadow on the 
wall. Although she knows that virtue does not lie in self-abnegation, 
there do not seem to be other answers in her world. The bitten who 
survive will be stronger because less sensitive, like Miss Mann, the 
exemplary spinster Caroline visits in order to learn the secrets of 
old maids. But what she discovers on that occasion is a Medusa 
whose gaze turns men to stone, a woman to whom "a crumb is not 
thrown once a year"; a woman who exists "ahungered and athirst 
to famine" (chap. 10). And Miss Ainely, the other local spinster, 
manages to live more optimistically only through religious devotion 
and self-denial. Scorned by Robert, these lives are not attractive 
to Caroline either, but she nevertheless sees no other option because 
"All men, taken singly are more or less selfish; and taken in bodies 
they are intensely so" (chap. 10). With clenched hands, then, she 
decides to follow Miss Ainely's example: to work hard at keeping 
down her anguish, although she is haunted by a "funereal inward 
cry" (chap. 10). 



Just as Jane Eyre is a parable about an Everywoman who must 
encounter and triumph over a series of allegorical, patriarchal perils, 
Caroline Helstone's case history provides proof that the real source 
of tribulation is simply the dependent status of women. Unlike Jane, 
however, Caroline is quite beautiful, and she is protected from 
penury by the generosity of her uncle, who promises an annuity to 
provide for her even after his death. But Jane has at least mobility, 
traveling from Gateshead to Lowood, from Thornfield to Marsh 
End, and finally to Ferndean, while Caroline never leaves Yorkshire. 
Caroline, in fact, would welcome what she knows to be an uncom- 
fortable position as governess because it would at least alleviate the 
inertia that suffocates her. But of course such an option is rejected 
as improper by her "friends," so that her complete immobility 
finally begins to make it seem quite probable that her "mental 
stomach" cannot "digest the stone" nor her hand endure the scor- 
pion's sting. Significantly, it is only at this point of total paralysis 



The Genesis of Hunger: Shirley 381 

that Bronte introduces Shirley Keeldar, a heroine who serves in all 
ways as a contrast to Caroline. 

As brilliant as Caroline is colorless, as outgoing as Caroline is 
retiring, Shirley is not a dependent inmate or a passive suppliant, 
not a housekeeper or housewife. She is a wealthy heiress who 
owns her own house, the ancestral mansion usually allotted to the 
hero, complete with old latticed windows, a stone porch, and a 
shadowy gallery with carved stags' heads hung on its walls. Almost 
always pictured (when indoors) beside a window, she enters the 
novel that bears her name through the glass doors of the garden. 
As "lord" of the manor she scorns lap dogs, romping instead with 
a huge mastiff reminiscent of Emily's hound Keeper. And she 
clearly enjoys her status as well as its ambiguous effect on her role 
in society: 

Business! Really the word makes me conscious I am indeed no 
longer a girl, but quite a woman and something more. I am 
an esquire ! Shirley Keeldar, Esquire, ought to be my style and 
title. They gave me a man's name; I hold a man's position: 
it is enough to inspire me with a touch of manhood, and when 
I see such people as that stately Anglo-Belgian — that Gerard 
Moore before me, gravely talking to me of business, really I 
feel quite gentleman-like. [chap. 11] 

Part of this is teasing, because Shirley is speaking to Mr. Helstone, 
who is unsympathetic to her independence. But the passage also 
reflects Bronte's recurrent and hopeless concern with transvestite 
behavior: Mr. Rochester dressing up as a gypsy, Shirley preening 
as a gallant cavalier, Lucy Snowe flirting as a fop for the hand of a 
coquette in a theatrical production, and Charlotte herself imper- 
sonating Charles Wellesley or William Crimsworth — all show a 
fascination with breaking the conventions of traditional sexual roles 
to experience the liberating and (especially in Victorian England) 
tantalizingly mysterious experiences of the other sex. When Shirley 
plays the captain to Caroline's modest maiden, their coy banter 
and testing infuses the relationship with a fine, subtle sexuality that 
is markedly absent from their manipulative heterosexual relation- 
ships. Yet, given that Shirley's masculine name was bestowed by 



382 The Spectral Selves of Charlotte Bronte 

parents who had wished for a son, there is something not a little 
foreboding about the fact that independence is so closely associated 
with men that it confines Shirley to a kind of male mimicry. 

A true Lady Bountiful, strong yet loving, Shirley is never except 
playfully a male manque. Laying out impromptu feasts in the 
garden or banquets in the dining room, she owns the dairy cows 
that supply the cottagers with milk and butter, and she pays exor- 
bitant bills for bread, candles, and soap, although she suspects that 
her housekeeper must be cheating her. Shirley manages to give 
sustenance to Caroline, not only because she has meat and 'wine 
for Moore's men or sweet cake in her reticule to throw to chickens 
and sparrows, but also because she is blessed with the capacity for 
delight that poetic imagination can inspire: in moments of "fulness 
of happiness," Shirley's "sole book . . . was the dim chronicle of 
memory, or the sibyl page of anticipation . . . round her lips at 
moments played a smile which revealed glimpses of the tale or 
prophecy" (chap. 13). To Caroline, this gift promises to save Shirley 
from the grotesque dependence she herself feels upon men and their 
approval, for Caroline is convinced that even extreme misery when 
experienced by a poet is dissipated by the creation of literature: 
Cowper and Rousseau, for instance, certainly "found relief in writing 
. . . and that gift of poetry — the most divine bestowed on man — 
was, I believe, granted to allay emotions when their strength threa- 
tens harm" (chap. 12). Such a poet does not need to be loved, "and 
if there were any female Cowpers and Rousseaus, I should assert 
the same of them" (chap. 12). In other words, Caroline hopes that 
in Shirley she has found a woman free from the constraints which 
threaten to destroy her own life. 

And, certainly, the fact that Shirley emerges only when Caroline 
has been completely immobilized through her own self-restraint and 
submission is reminiscent of the ways in which Bertha Mason 
Rochester offers a means of escape to the otherwise boxed-in Jane 
Eyre. But here repression signals the emergence of a free and unin- 
hibited self that is not criminal. That Shirley is Caroline's double, 
a projection of all her repressed desire, becomes apparent in the 
acts she performs "for" Caroline. What Shirley does is what Caroline 
would like to do : Caroline's secret hatred for the curates is gratified 
when Shirley angrily throws them out of her house after they are 



The Genesis of Hunger: Shirley 383 

attacked by her dog; Caroline needs to move Helstone, and Shirley 
bends him to her will; Caroline wishes early in the novel that she 
could penetrate the business secrets of men, while Shirley reads the 
newspapers and letters of the civic leaders; Caroline wants to lighten 
Robert's financial burden and Shirley secures him a loan ; Caroline 
tries to repress her desire for Robert, while Shirley gains his attention 
and proposal of marriage ; Caroline has always known that he needs 
to be taught a lesson (consider her explication of Coriolanus) and 
Shirley gives it to him in the form of a humilating rejection of his 
marriage proposal. Caroline wishes above all else for her long-lost 
mother and Shirley supplies her with just this person in the figure 
of Mrs. Pryor. 

Paradoxically, however, for all the seeming optimism in this 
depiction of a double, as opposed to the earlier portrait of self- 
destructive and enraged Bertha, Shirley does not provide the release 
she first seems to promise Caroline. Instead, she herself becomes 
enmeshed in a social role that causes her to duplicate Caroline's 
immobility. For example, she gratuitously flirts, thereby inflicting 
pain on Caroline, who is tortured by her belief that Shirley is a 
successful rival for Robert Moore's love. Indeed